Sunday, May 26, 2013

Report on Congress


Dona:  We are back this Sunday morning with another "Report on Congress."   Last week, there were two reported on Congressional hearings.  On Wednesday, the House Oversight and Government Reform  hearing a historic, once-in-a-lifetime hearing.  This was reported on in C.I.'s "Iraq snapshot," Ava's"Sir, I gave you the wrong information (Ava)," Wally's "Time for a special prosecutor (Wally)" and Kat's
"It was like Steel Magnolias at one point during the hearing."  It was also spoofed in Cedric's "Future employment opportunities for Lois Lerner" and Wally's "THIS JUST IN! A WHOLE NEW WORLD FOR LOIS LERNER!"  But I want to deal with another hearing first.  Actually, I want to deal with a complaint.  A reader named Phyllis e-mailed to complain that there was a VA hearing on Wednesday and you did not cover it.  She says that you appear "to only want to go where the press and the glamor is."  She notes she is "very unhappy."   I'm tossing to C.I.

C.I.: I'll assume she's never attended a Congressional hearing or she wouldn't accuse it of being glamorous.  The other hearing that was covered, was a VA hearing.  I covered it "Iraq snapshot" and that was Tuesday's House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee hearing on pending legislation.  No offense to anyone but these hearings -- on pending legislation -- are usually the least covered by the press, they are not considered remotely glamorous.  I was there, it was covered.  The Wednesday hearing that Phyllis is referring to was the House Committee of Veterans Affairs -- again.  It started at the same time as the House Oversight and Government Reform.  Originally my plan was to catch the first of the Oversight hearing but a friend at the VA hearing texted me the place was packed.  I think I made the right choice.  I've seen VBA's Allison Hickey spin and lie enough times.

Dona: And Oversight was a historic hearing.  Wally, since you both reported on it and -- with Cedric -- spoofed it, how about you explain the historical aspect.

Wally: Pleading the Fifth before Congress.  Does anyone do it?  During the McCarthy era, private citizens called before the Congress and asked if they were a Communist would plead the Fifth to avoid self-incrimination.  No one was concerned with Communism at this hearing.  More recently, baseball star Roger Clemens was asked about doping and he pleaded the Fifth.  Baseball's Mark McGwire, eight years ago, also pleaded the Fifth when asked by Congress about steroids.  As far as I know, Monica Goodling was the only government official to appear before the US Congress and plead the Fifth in what was not a criminal investigation.  Goodling was a Bully Boy Bush appointee.  But there are many differences here.  First off, she wasn't under a subpoena to appear. And she just announced she wouldn't be showing.  Second, she was already on administrative leave.  Third, she and the Justice Department parted ways.  Fourth, after that happened the House offered her immunity, issued a subpoena and she appeared before it. Lois Lerner pleaded the Fifth on Wednesday.  She went in as an IRS official.  She was not on leave then.  The day after, she was placed on administrative leave.  She came before Congress.  She read a lengthy statement and she pleaded the Fifth.

Dona: Which raises issues right there.

Kat: Let me jump in.  One of the issues is how do we cover it?  That's the issue I wanted to address.  If you plead the Fifth, you say nothing.  To me, and we discussed this after the hearing before any of us reported on it, Lois wanted it both ways.  She wanted to get a statement on the record that would be reported -- video footage of her speaking on the news -- proclaiming her innocence and yet she didn't want to answer questions.  I stated that I felt we didn't report one word she said because that wasn't fair.  You plead the Fifth and stay silent or you talk.  You can't have it both ways and I didn't want my site being used to help Lois spread her propaganda.

Dona: This was an in depth discussion?

Kat: Yes, it was.

Ava: And during that, C.I. pointed out the other obvious problem, the one you were going to raise, Dona.  That problem is: Did she really plead the Fifth?  You can't make a statement and plead the Fifth.  At least people don't think you can and you haven't been able to so far.  The House is looking into that now. But, yes, IRS official Lois Lerner coming before Congress and announcing she was pleading the Fifth was a historic moment.

Dona: She was only one of four witnesses appearing before the House Committee.  Another was the Treasury Department's Inspector General J. Russell George.  Wally, in a previous "Report on Congress," you spoke about how he was nervous at the start of the hearing with IRS acting commissioner Steve Miller because he was seated right next to Miller.  That doesn't usually happen, you noted, where the IG witness and the person he or she is judging are on the same panel and seated side-by-side.  What about this hearing and George?

Wally: It was not the love-fest he'd had before.  There were serious questions about why he had not kept Congress informed.  Those came from everyone -- including Committee Chair Darrell Issa and Committee member Eleanor Holmes Norton.  Congress is supposed to be read in,they're supposed to be kept in the loop.  He felt that they only learned the outcome when the IG completed the report.  That's not what the law says and, as was pointed out to him, when they asked for this investigation, they made it clear they wanted to be updated regularly.

Dona: And they weren't?

Wally: No.  And e-mails were read and displayed with various excuses that Congress was given for a year while they tried to get answers about the investigation.  At one point, in August of last year, Congress was sent an e-mail that insisted that the sender -- I'm assuming George -- meant to get back to them sooner but it was a busy time what with finals.  Final exams.  College classes delayed an inspector general's investigation.  And the Congress kept e-mailing asking for updates.  They were repeatedly promised them.  So the failure to give them and to say last week that you didn't know you could, you thought that wasn't allowed by the law, that excuse really doesn't wash.

Dona: Wally, best guess.  Why didn't people get informed?

Wally: In e-mail after e-mail, it was noted that deadlines were being missed.  One of the most obvious deadlines was the start of October.  Had this IG report come out in October, it could have influenced the election.  The IRS was out of control.  And the IRS knew that and had known it since May of 2010.  So I think people who feel that the report was stonewalled and proper importance was not placed on it are correct.  And I think from there the argument can be made that it was intentional and it was to keep the report buried until after the election.

Dona: Kat, you know Ava and C.I. aren't going to guess.  Can I get you too?

Kat: Sure, even though I should have learned my lesson from last time I ventured a guess.  What Wally's talking about, that possibility it is a strong one.  Not only was the report buried but Congress was lied to.  The IRS knew in May of 2010 about this problem.  And yet they came before Congress and lied about it.  Why?  I don't think it's a stretch to argue that they lied due to the election.

Dona: Doug Shulman was at the hearing.  He was the IRS Commissioner until Miller became Acting.  A big deal was made out of him being a Bush appointee.

Kat: Yeah, as if that would put the blame on Barack.  However, all the reporters were saying, after the hearing, they were saying that he had a record of contributing to Democrats and that his last donation was to John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign.  But in the hearing, when asked about his contributions, he refused to answer.  He said it was a long time ago and didn't take place while he was a Commissioner and that he couldn't remember.  Now look, of everyone involved in this little roundtable right now, I have the worst memory.  I'm known for that.  But I can remember donating to Kerry's campaign in 2004.  It wasn't even a decade ago.

Dona: Ava, Kat's talking about how Shulman couldn't answer a basic question.  You reported on some of that.  Tell us about that.

Ava: Okay, US House Rep. Stephen Lynch was attempting to get a straight and simple answer from Douglas Shulman.  He had told the Congress a year ago that there was "absolutely no targeting."  And there was.  Lynch wanted to know why Shulman had lied.  And Shulman ate up the time.  At one point, he floated the idea that it wasn't targeting because it wasn't just conservative groups being targeted.  And Lynch was on that wanting to know who else was targeted.  No one.  Shulman was saying he might not have known that it was just conservatives at the time, that a year ago, to the best of his recollection, he might have thought other groups were being targeted.

Dona: And then there's his most ridiculous reason that no one was targeted.

Ava: Right.  His attitude today is that no one was targeted.  That he was truthful then and no one's targeted today.  Why?  You don't have to apply for that status.  You can wait until filing taxes and just check that status. So these people having trouble with the status, they should have just ignored it.  I'm looking at your face and I think you want to speak.

Dona: I do. Thank you.  I was so outraged when I read that in your report.  So let's put me and a reader in a  501 (c) (4) group called Lays Lovers -- we believe in Lays potato chips and getting the word and educating the public on them.  And we apply for our status and are asked to provide a list of our donors and are asked what material we can provide and are asked who speaks before our group and do we pray and what is our prayer?  After those kind of questions even if we know that we can ignore the application and just file we already know there's going to be serious problems when we file our taxes because trying to get the application has been impossible.  And that's if we know.  I had no idea until your report that a group could operate and just file their taxes -- no application necessary.

Ava: Right.  I don't think most people do.  But what you're risking is that you'll have done all this work and then have your tax exemption denied.  And who wants to do that to begin with.  Shulman was a liar.

Wally: I will add that Lynch deserves applause for noting that if answers can't be supplied -- and they weren't -- it's time for a special prosecutor to be appointed.  I agree with that completely.

Dona: Amen.  Okay, I left C.I. out of that conversation because she was the only one at the VA hearing on Tuesday.  I know that because I'm the one who does C.I.'s schedule.  I juggle where she's going to speak with what hearings she's going to attend.

C.I.: And Dona does a great job and I never know where I'm going until I check her schedule.  I didn't even know it was Memorial Day tomorrow until after I woke up Friday morning and was looking at Dona's schedule to see what time I left Monday.  I don't.  Yea!

Dona: Kat didn't want to go to Tuesday's hearing.  She wasn't the only one who felt that way but was the most expressive.

Kat: I said my butt is going to be sore Wednesday.  I don't need Tuesday.  And Wednesday's hearing lasted forever.   But it's also true that pending legislation can be covered by just C.I.  It's not like there's usually a great deal of things there.  Although when they do scientific presentations, I do like that.

Dona: So, C.I., what did they do?

C.I.: I wished others had been there because one thing they did was talk about two possible bills.  Nothing was in writing.  I don't think I've been to hearing where they've done that.  Pending legislation has always, at past hearings, meant there was a bill.  I thought.  One of the pending -- nothing written -- bills is one of the most important.  This has to do with accountability. The VA continues to miss deadlines imposed by Congress.  Nothing's happening there.  You miss the deadline, you get a slap on the wrist in terms of Congress says some things to you in a session.  That's it.  There are no consequences.  So this is a proposal, how to give Congress teeth with regards to VA's failures.  Veterans attending the hearing that I spoke to after the hearing -- I'm referring to veterans who observed, not the ones with VSOs who offered testimony -- thought this was the most important thing that Congress could do.  Five of them brought up all by themselves from me asking them, "If only one thing discussed today happened, what would you want it to be?"  They all said for Congress to find ways to penalize the VA when they blow off deadlines.  There is so much frustration among veterans over this -- you heard from the VSOs too but I'm talking about among veterans who showed up to observe the hearing.

Dona: And that doesn't surprise me, that they'd feel that way, because just doing this feature over the last months -- has been years yet? -- has left me frustrated with the repeated failures of the VA to serve the veterans in the manner that they promised Congress that they would.  Could you talk about the mental health evaluations?  You reported on that as well.

C.I.: Sure.  That's another area that VA's failing.  US House Rep. Dennis Ross is proposing  HR 241 Veterans Timely Access to Health Care Act.  Why is he proposing it?  Because The VA promised that they would provide mental health evaluations for all veterans needing them within 14 days of a veteran contacting the VA to schedule a consultation.  So Dona, you're a veteran, and you call the VA May 1st and say, "Hey I need to schedule a consultation to get a mental evaluation."  You may go further and note Post-Traumatic Stress or something else.  But you explain what you need.  By May 15th, you're supposed to have had that initial evaluation.  The VA has told Congress that this goal has been met.  They have a 95% success rate on meeting this goal.  But there's what the VA tells Congress and what's actually going on.  So what's actually going on?  In the most recent VA Inspector General report on this topic?  The VA isn't meeting this goal 95% of the time.  They're not even making it 70% or even 50%.  49% is their success rate with this goal.  In addition, 184,000 veterans, in 2012, had to wait over 50 days for that initial evaluation.  As Dennis Ross pointed out, this wasn't for treatment, this was just for the initial evaluation.  So let me go back, Dona, you're the the veteran and you call the VA May 1st to schedule a mental evaluation.  You might not be seen until July.  What message does that send and if you are struggling with a mental issue how the hell does that over 50 day wait help you?

Dona: And that is why there needs to be teeth for the US Congress.  VA keeps lying.  Elaine had a great post on this on Friday, "Why does Shinseki still have a job?"  More and more that it is the question to be asking.  Alright this is  a rush transcript.  Our new e-mail address is

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