Sunday, April 14, 2013

Congress and Veterans

Dona: Today the Valley News becomes the latest paper to carry US House Rep. Duncan Hunted and Concerned Veterans for America's Pete Hegseth's column for the Washington Post entitled "VA's Leaders Are Not Up to the Task and Need to Be Replaced."  Among those the column suggest need to be replaced?  Secretary of the VA Eric Shinseki.


Dona (Con't): The two men write,  "We recognize that replacing a Cabinet secretary is a dramatic step. But few things are more important than honoring the commitments our nation has made to its veterans. The president and VA officials have said all the right things, but they have not delivered."  Last week, Shinseki appeared before the House Veterans Affairs Committee to discuss the budget.  Kat, Wally, Ava and C.I. attended the hearing.  C.I. reported on it in "Iraq snapshot" and "Seamless transition? Shinseki wasted the last four years," while Ava reported in "Shinseki tries to present 134% increase as a gift for women," Wally with  "How the VA and DoD waste your tax dollars (Wally)" and Kat offered "DAV calls for Congress to reject 'chained CPI'."  Looking over those reports, what stands out first is the Committee Chair Jeff miller declaring that he's not seeing any improvements, "Mr. Secretary, we need to see results.  We need to see the outcomes the Administration promised with the resources Congress provided.  The excuses must stop.  I have supported you and your leadership up to this point.  I believe the Committee and the Congress has provided you with everything you have asked.  It's time to deliver."  I'm reading that as, at best, my support for you now is conditional.  At worst, you need to go.  Anyone else see different interpretations?

Ava: No.  I think you've captured it.  There is a sense of frustration with regards to Shinseki.  A kind of end-of-our-ropes feel.

Dona: Among Republicans, yes.  But Democrats?

Wally: Let me start there as a resident of Florida.  Can Corrinne Brown please step down from Congress?  Since she's unable and/or unwilling to fight for veterans, can she please step down.  She is still making excuses for the VA.  She's still using the hearing to distract.  And if you were in those hearings in 2007 and 2008, it was always, "The VA must improve, the VA must --" but now that a Democrat's in the White House, she's all excuses.  She is so embarrassing.

Ava: And then there's Tim Walz.

Dona: Right.  Ava, in your report you referenced him and his stupid -- and it was stupid -- remark where he spat on the American public to try to score a few points.  He's shameless.  But you also refer to an exchange with Bob Filner when Filner was on the Committee.  Explain about that.

Ava: In 2012, a hearing had the VA's Allison Hickey testifying and she was offering her usual nonsense, spin and outright lies.  Filner called her on it, called offering up a flow chart providing Congress with a plan and Timothy Walz jumps in screaming about how she's a veteran and blah blah blah.  And Bob Filner let him have it.

Dona: More people should.  He's shameless.  C.I., you know Bob Filner so I'm sure you included that in your report of that hearing.  Can you pull it up.

C.I.: Yes, this is Filner from the June 20, 2012 snapshot.

 House Veterans Affairs Committee Ranking Member Bob Filner: Now, by the way, Mr. [US House Rep Timothy] Walz -- now, Mr. Walz, she [VA Under Secretary Allison Hickey] doesn't need your defense here for her past accomplishments. And I don't need a lecture from you of her past.  We're talking about what she's going to do for the VA now. I'll stipulate any accomplishments that she's had. I respect her service.  But if she can't do this job, I don't care what she has done in the past.  Okay? So don't lecture me about how I don't have respect for someone's past.  She's talking about the future -- the present and the future.  And she didn't give one answer or one recognition that there was any problem -- in all her testimony, in every answer.  This Chairman [Marlin Stutzman] asked her a number of things. She talked for three-and-a-half minutes and didn't give the answer and still doesn't know the answer.  So let's talk about what she's doing right here and right now.  And I said if one of your veterans -- And she didn't answer your question, your very good questions, Mr. Walz, about the time period of what's going on in Minneapolis?  She just said, 'Oh, from time to time we have surges.'  You asked are we heading toward a lowest common denominator and she never answered that.  So don't -- I mean be a little more critical of the kind of answers we're getting.  We don't have a plan. This whole hearing was about a plan.  If I were her, I would have given out the plan.  But we still don't have one.  Again, Ms. Hickey, if I were you, leadership comes from the top. The top is saying, "There is no problem."  You ask any veteran in my district, in Mr. Walz' district, in Mr. [Mike] Michaud's district, in Mr. Stutzman's district: Is there a problem?  Every one will say, "Yes."  Now you can say, 'They don't understand fully.  Their perception is wrong, we've had a surge of this.  We did this.  We had the Vietnam era.'  I don't care what -- you have not either acknowledged the problem or say how we're going to get out of it.  You gave us an assurance of a date.  And Mr. Walz asked --  I know it's not a very bright question -- 'Are you committed? Is it going to happen?'  What is she going to say?  "No"?  We've had these questions, we've had these committments for years and years and years and years.  And Mr. Walz asked you another softball question: 'Has anything been tried as this big before?  We have tried every single thing that you have as your initiatives -- has been tried.   Every one of them at some point.  In fact, we've had far more comprehensive plans than your forty initiatives lumped together.  Nothing has worked.  It's gotten worse.  And you refuse to admit it.  You refuse to acknowledge it.  And you don't give us a plan to fix it.  What am I to think? 'Well, she was an Air Force General that did great things.'  If it doesn't happen by 2015, are you going to say I resign or what's going to happen if you're at the top?  And it's always two or three years out.  It's never, "I'm going to do this tomorrow."  You've been working on this.  Your predecessor's been working on this.  I don't have any assurance.  You can't even correct a date on the computer for a year-and-a-half and you call it a "glitch."  What confidence do I have that you can do anything if it took a year-and-a-half to fix a "glitch?"  The simplest thing.  Put a date in.  You could have done it by hand in a few months.  It took you a year-and-a-half.  You still haven't done it.  I'm sure we'll get a memo from you -- I just bet, you want to make a bet right now -- that you'll ask for another extension.  I just bet.  When's that going to be done?  Why should we have any confidence in 2015 that a system of a million backlog is going to be fixed when we can't even get a "glitch" fixed in a year-and-a-half?  What gives me the confidence?  That you were an Air Force General?  Sorry, it doesn't work. Give me some confidence.  What has worked so far?  Everything has been a problem.

Dona: I would have hoped Walz would have learned from that moment but apparently, like the wig-hatted Corrine Brown, he wants to self-embarrass and self-shame every hearing.  So the Dems on the Committee are going to cover for him?

Kat: I don't think so.  I think the two worst are Brown and Walz and they are covering.  But you don't get the sense from others that they're going to cover.  It's more of a I-can't-believe-you've-been-in-charge-for-four-years.  Because there is no accomplishment.  On every measure, the VA has gotten worse.  I believe Miller made that point in the hearing, about how there's nothing they can point to and say, "Okay, well you had success here."

Dona: Alright.  C.I., I understand there's a section of your report in the snapshot that you edited.  That's fine, no problem and I don't even need to know about it but since Kat told me about it, I thought I'd throw it out.

C.I.: That's fine.  Gus Bilirakis did a poor job in my opinion.  And I edited that section to soften it because was it fair to him?  In it's original form I threw him against the wall for not knowing several things.  And the reason I feel he should have known is that he took the seat from his father.  Until 2007, Michael Bilirakis was the seat holder. And after I dictated it, I said, "Remind me to come back to that section," and I went on with the snapshot and then went back and made the language less outraged.  Is it fair to expect him to know information about the push for an electronic record which would allow a seamless transition from DoD to VA?  It's been covered while he's been on the Committee.  But was I expecting too much to assume he would have discussed this with his father?  I don't know?  But I softened the language as a result.

Dona: Okay, seamless transition.  You join the military and are a service member.  You leave and your records go over to VA.  If they're not lost.   If they're not this or that.  Seamless transition is based upon the idea that an electronic record can be created for the service member when he or she joins the military and it will follow them through their military career on over to the VA when they leave the service.  This would save money and time.  And Congress has been funding and talking about this forever.  It's supposed to be nearly complete but this year the VA announced it wouldn't happen that they had other things to do.  This shocked Congress and VA backpedaled.  Where does it stand now, C.I.?

C.I.: The same place it stood in 2005.  They've done nothing.  Eric Shinseki has appeared before Congress for the last four years insisting it was on track and blah blah.  But last week, he lets slip in his testimony that they still haven't decided whether to use DoD's system or VA's.  That matters because the reason they couldn't just start the electronic record is that DoD's system can't communicate with VA's system.  So the first step in this process is determining which system will be used.  And they haven't done that.  All this time later.  So they haven't done a damn thing which I find outrageous.

Dona: And, Wally, you emphasized that from both a cost and management persepctive.

Wally: Right.  How can you be the one in charge for four years, take money for a project, tell Congress you are on it, that you are progressing and you've never taken the first step?

Dona: In your report, you offered a comparison.

Wally: Yeah.  And I'll offer another here.  The electronic record?  Think of it as the nursery.  You and I are having a baby.  You say, "I need you to paint the walls so we can fix up a nursery.  Then we'll move the furniture in there."  Every week you say, "How's that painting coming, honey?"  And every week, I say, "I'm on it, dear."  Then one week, you walk in and it's still not painted.  And you ask me about it and I say I still haven't bought the paint.  That's what Shinseki going before Congress last week, after four years in office and four years of telling Congress he was working on the electronic record, declaring that they still hadn't decided whether to use DoD's computer system or the VA's.  This is the first decision you make.  Everything else will follow.

Dona: Gotcha. So how did he get away with it?

Ava: Lack of oversight.

Kat: Agreed.  He tells Congress, repeatedly, that he's working on it.  They ask.  Did Barack Obama ever ask?  He is the one over Shinseki.  Seems like he should have asked a few times in the last four years, "Where are we with this seamless transition?"  C.I. argued in her report that Barack needs to have a meeting with Shinseki and Chuck Hagel, Defense Secretary, and declare, "We are going to use ___ system."  Either DoD or VA's system.  That Barack needs to make that decision and then they need to follow it.  I agree with that.  And Wally's illustration just now about a nursery was even better than his earlier one.  This is foot dragging, this is wasting time and taxpayer money.  There's no excuse for it.

Dona: Kat, in your report, you noted that along with  Disabled American Veterans'  rejecting the White House proposal for "chained CPI," you also noted that the American Legion raised attention to VA centers that could be closed.

Kat: Yes, the Legion identified 15 centers that will close under Barack Obama's proposed budget.   They are:  Albuquerque, New Mexico; Brick, New Jersey; Charleston, South Carolina; Cobb County, Georgia; Honolulu, Hawaii; Lafayette, Louisiana; Lake Charles, Louisiana; New Port Richey, Florida; Ponce, Puerto Rico; San Antonio, Texas; West Haven, Connecticut; Worchester, Massachusetts; Johnson County, Kansas; San Diego, California; and Tyler, Texas.  I emphasized Lake Charles because we've visited that area to speak about the wars repeatedly and I also knew it to have a strong minority demographic -- it turns out, I didn't know this until I was writing up the hearing, it's actually a minority-majority community -- meaning Anglo Whites make up less than 50% of the population.  So it's really shocking to me that Lake Charles, which predominately serves Africa-American veterans would be on the chopping block.  I also heard, after my piece went up, from veterans in Smith County and Cherokee County.  So, if there's time --

Dona: We will make time, go on.

Kat: Well Tyler, Texas is in Smith County.  Cherokee County is right below it.  Van Zandt County is to the east.  Let's say that you're in Canton, Texas, okay?  This is an example from one veteran who is in Canton.  He can drive one hour and 20 minutes and reach the city limits of Dallas then spend 30 minutes in traffic getting to Dallas' VA Center which is in the undeveloped area -- south Dallas has traditionally been ignored and shorted by the city which wants to move north -- and that expansion has everything to do with south Dallas being predominately African-America.  Or he can drive 45 minutes to reach Tyler and 12 more minutes to reach the Tyler VA Center.   Cherokee County residents go there, Smith County goes there and Gregg County which is to the west, also goes there.  I don't understand how they can justify pulling that clinic.  And I'm going to toss to C.I.

C.I.: When Kat's report went up, I heard from three different people who are community members.  One is in Whitehouse which borders Tyler on the south.  She made the point that her son is deployed right now.  He is returning to the area in 8 months when his deployment is up and he's not planning on re-enlisting.  The other two were making similar points.  And my point here is that Tyler's not a big city.  It's a nice city.  It's known for its yearly rose festival among other things.  But what Tyler is is -- it's a city surrounded by small towns.  What the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars have shared is that many of the people who've enlisted have come from rural areas.  If you look at all the small times that surround Tyler and Smith County, that's a huge number and that's what the three e-mailing were concerned about.  They feel like there are already enough veterans in the area and that as the drawdown from Afghanistan takes place, you are going to see hundreds more veterans returning who would be accessing the Tyler facility.

Dona: Alright, thank you Kat and C.I., very informative.  Let's wind down by going back to Shinseki.  Wally, will start with you, should he step down and do you think he will?

Wally: He should.  He's been a disaster.  I would recommend  people read C.I.'s "Seamless transition? Shinseki wasted the last four years," which details the first major mistake Shinseki made -- with regards to the GI Bill -- and how this is a pattern.  I could go into all of that but you said "winding down."

Dona: I did say we were winding down.

Wally: I don't think he'll resign.  I don't think he'll be asked to.  The hallmark of Barack's tenure as president has been a repeated lack of accountability.

Dona: Alright, Kat, I'm going to you.

Kat: Yes, he should resign.  He's demonstrated a lack of leadership, a lack of oversight and I would argue a pattern of dishonesty -- like Wally said, see that report by C.I. where she talks about how Shinseki knew in January 2009 that veterans would not be getting their college checks in August and September of 2009.  He knew over 8 months ahead of time that this would be happening and he didn't inform Congress.  So he needs to go.  Will he?  No.

Dona: Ava?

Ava: I love how we're each slipping in the point of C.I.'s report -- into our answers.

Dona: I noticed that too.

Ava: So let me grab where Kat left off, not only did he know but when the problem emerged he allowed the VA to blame veterans and say they'd filed their paper work wrong and when that got him in trouble he allowed the VA to then blame the colleges.  The only one to blame was the VA.  He should go.  I have no idea whether he will or not.

Dona: C.I.?

C.I.:  Yes, he should go.  I think he should have gone in October of 2009 when he told Congress he learned of the problem in January and even hired an outside consultant who verified it.  He did not then inform Congress -- they never knew there was problem until the press was reporting on the scandal.  And worse, he didn't inform veterans.  I want to remind everyone that in real time, the press was reporting in December and January about veterans who were having to tell their kids Christmas would come in early 2010 and they had to do that because they still didn't have their college tuition checks for the now ended fall semester.  That's inexcusable.  Will he go? I don't know.  Shinseki's Chief of Staff, John Gingrich, just got forced out at the end of March.  That's a sign that there is administration pressure, pressure from the White House.  But whether Gingrich will be the token fall guy or the first of many to be held accountable, I don't know.

Dona: Alright.  Thank you everyone.  Let me note that this is a rush transcript so enjoy any and all typos.  Our e-mail address is Remember, that's our new e-mail address.  We are not checking the old one.

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