Bureaucrats have the upper hand and veterans are the ones who continue to lose
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The old adage money talks certainly rings true in Washington. On capitol hill, money does more than just talk, it lobbies, and when it lobbies, Congress listens. As early as the 1980’s, members of Congress started to complain about the effects of pressure to raise campaign cash, and how the amount of time spent raising money detracted from time spent conducting oversight and focusing on real issues.

As this trend has continued through our most recent election cycle, the effects of campaign cash, or lack thereof, are most apparent in how Congress handles matters pertaining to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

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With issues such as alleged drug theft at VA facilities to potential improper handling of veterans healthcare applications, VA oversight should, practically speaking, remain a pressing issue for members of the 115th Congress.

 

Thus far, it has not, and here is why: veterans, as a special interest group, do not have the cash to be heard. Even while organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America have recently come under scrutiny for the amount of funding they have received and how that funding has been spent — the actual dollar amounts veterans lobbying organizations receive pales in comparison to the amount of money spent on lobbying in other areas, such as the pharmaceutical, insurance, banking, oil and gas industries, to name a few.

And, although some grassroots organization amongst veterans groups have begun to gain momentum, they have not yet gained the media’s attention in the same way those frustrated with the future of ObamaCare have at recent town hall events.

Again, money talks, and the future of ObamaCare has potentially expensive consequences for those in the healthcare, insurance, and pharmaceutical industries. Even though a large portion of VA’s budget goes towards veterans’ healthcare, the Department’s isolationist stance, i.e., that veterans’ healthcare should be provided within the VA and through only limited collaboration with outside providers, means that the money trail leads lawmakers further away from focusing on veterans’ healthcare specifically.

This concept is most evident in the makeup of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which is tasked with overseeing the VA, and is often plagued by high turnover, with more than half of its members being new to the Committee and most being new to Congress altogether. Last week, Legistorm noted that “[t]urnover on committees is one key indicator of which are the Hill’s least-desired committee assignments.”

The article elaborated that the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs work “can be a thankless task because of its rather limited scope and weak fundraising potential,” and that its current makeup of 28 percent freshman members was much higher than the average percentage rate across all Committees (16 percent).

The fact that veterans issues are perceived as having “weak fundraising potential” exacerbates the already “thankless task” of fixing the VA. Similarly, in the wake of the Phoenix VA scandal in 2014, the Huffington Post reported the simple reason that Congress had not yet fixed the VA was because of money, stating that the Veterans’ Affairs Committee “comes with no opportunity to rake in campaign cash.”

Despite the fact that the VA is the fifth largest agency in terms of government spending (it is the second largest in terms of size), senior Congressmen often take assignments on more lucrative Committees that offer greater fundraising potential the first chance they get.

For example, Congressmen who left the Committee after the 114th Congress include Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.), who left for the Ways and Means Committee, Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), who left for Financial Services, and Dina Titus (D-Nev.), who left for Foreign Affairs.

With fewer senior members, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee has less access to both parties’ leadership and mainstream media outlets, and, more importantly, a greater challenge in conducting the taxing oversight required to keep the department accountable.

For those who have been following veterans issues, accountability remains a hot button issue for veterans unhappy with the care they receive through the VA.

Those who do stay on the Committee tend to have a personal connection to veterans issues, for example, Tim Walz (D-Minn.), the Committee’s Ranking Member, is the highest-ranking enlisted soldier to ever serve in Congress, and his passion for veterans issues is such that, in the past, he applied for a waiver to join the Committee as an extra assignment.

Walz is unanimously liked by veterans advocates for his genuine support of veterans issues, and he is an anomaly in the current Congress in that his belief in getting things right at the VA trumps his desire to raise more campaign funds through other committee assignments.

According to John Wells, executive director of Military Veterans Advocacy group, which champions the rights of Blue Water Navy veterans, “historically the Veterans Affairs Committee has been a starting place for new members who are often unaware of the intricacies of VA management.

As an unpaid advocate, I often have to conduct an intensive education campaign to bring these new members up to speed on our issues. Luckily, most of the new members are eager to learn their new responsibilities concerning veterans oversight and are appreciative of our efforts.

Still, there is a steep learning curve and unfortunately, some members rotate off the Committee after one term. While some change is good, there must also be stability.”

Without institutional knowledge and stability for the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, bureaucrats have the upper hand, and veterans are the ones who continue to lose.

Rory E. Riley-Topping has dedicated her career to ensuring accountability within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to care for our nation’s veterans. She is the principal at Riley-Topping Consulting and has served in a legal capacity for the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, the National Veterans Legal Services Program, the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.


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