WASHINGTON – Those empty witness chairs at the House hearing on the spreading scandals at Veterans Affairs hospitals stood out like gravestones in Arlington National Cemetery.
Thursday’s hearing called by Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, did not have the weightiness of the Senate Democrats’ session where VA Secretary Eric Shinseki testified. The Senate session was an empty showcase for the general.
Miller wanted midlevel VA officials to testify about what they knew about the alleged destruction of a secret waiting list for care at the VA hospital in Phoenix, Ariz.
The list, if there is one, could figure in the deaths of 40 veterans who died while waiting to get treatment.
One official showed up, and in the main discussed why the others didn’t. The three absent public servants sent word to Miller that they had not been given enough time – nearly two weeks – to prepare for testimony. It reeked of stonewalling.
Miller, furious at the spectacle of three vacant chairs at the witness table, said he would subpoena the witnesses to show up by next Friday.
This issue has caught on politically in the House as no other has – far more than Benghazi, for example. Miller’s bill to give Shinseki more leeway to discipline VA employees passed on Wednesday. The vote was 390 to 33, with only Democrats opposing. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, backed Miller’s legislation but was not a co-sponsor. Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, co-sponsored the legislation and supported it, but also called for Shinseki to resign last year.
The legislation would give the VA secretary broad powers to remove a member of the senior executive service for cause. The VA, the second-largest federal department, is thickly populated with high-ranking medical and other career employees who have civil service job protection.
Removals other than for broad discretionary cause, as outlined in Miller’s bill, are very time-consuming, costly and doubtful.
The legislation is probably dead on arrival in the Democratic Senate, meaning that virtually nothing will happen in the vast VA as long as Democrats control that body. There is, of course, a House and Senate election in five months.
There is a Senate companion bill sponsored by Marco Rubio, R-Fla. It has 25 co-sponsors, but neither Democratic Sens. Charles E. Schumer nor Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has gone near it. Democrats are traditionally inclined to favor the bureaucratic status quo.
There are aspects to this scandal that make it different than the others. Because the victims are military personnel, most of whom served in unpopular wars, there is a large, and largely untapped, reservoir of sympathy out there. That makes disclosures of mistreatment volatile and enduring.
Next, there is the behavior of the news media. It took almost five months even for Fox News, let alone NBC, ABC or CBS, to give the rampant cover-ups of nonfeasance and neglect in more than two dozen of our veterans’ hospitals a tumble. Now they are, and this is a result of dogged investigative reporting for six long months by Cable News Network, or CNN.
At the moment, this is the worst possible news at the worst possible time for President Obama and his dream of sailing into the sunset with Democratic congressional majorities. Obama may yet feed Shinseki to the beast. He didn’t appear with the president after their meeting. That’s never a good sign.
But as far as the public is concerned, very little will be changed at Veterans Affairs until this president has left office.