GOP: Shinseki exit changes nothing

Greg Nash

Eric Shinseki may be gone, but House Republicans say they won’t let go of the scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs anytime soon.

The secretary’s resignation under political duress on Friday fit a Beltway pattern that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had warned about when he repeatedly declined to call for Shinseki’s ouster in the face of reports that, under his watch, officials at the VA had covered up lengthy waiting lists and allowed veterans to languish without proper healthcare.

His exit “changes nothing,” the Speaker insisted Friday, as he and other senior Republicans made clear the House would proceed with its investigation of the department and pursue more legislation to help veterans get speedier treatment.

“One personnel change cannot be used as an excuse to paper over a systemic problem,” Boehner said in a brief appearance before reporters at the Capitol. “Our veterans deserve better, and we will hold the president accountable until he makes things right.”

The House left town for a weeklong recess, but Republicans pressed Obama to lay out specific proposals to overhaul an agency marred by a culture of bureaucracy and outdated computer systems.

Boehner called for the Senate, which will be in session next week, to clear a House-passed bill that would make it easier to remove ineffective senior managers at the VA. And when the House returns in June, the Veterans Affairs Committee could move legislation that would allow veterans who have been waiting more than 30 days for a medical appointment to seek care outside the VA system.

While Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told The Hill he wanted to see “a bipartisan group” dig into the systemic problems at the department, a GOP leadership aide said it was unlikely the House would call for the creation of any kind of blue-ribbon commission. Boehner has historically emphasized the jurisdiction of standing House committees and repeatedly praised the work of Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) atop the Veterans Affairs Committee.

Both Boehner and Miller called for the administration to cooperate more fully with the House’s investigation, and Miller said he had “the utmost confidence” in the acting secretary that Obama named, Sloan Gibson.

Neither of them offered suggestions for permanent replacements for Shinseki as VA secretary.

The chairman told reporters Shinseki had ignored warnings that senior managers were “lying to him” for years.

“They were only bringing the positive things forward,” Miller said, “and unfortunately, his management style allowed the mid-level bureaucrats to take him down, because he could not lead the agency in a way that was necessary for the change that needed to take place.”

The VA would not be fixed overnight, Miller said, but he argued that some changes could start immediately, such as passing legislation to make it easier to fire ineffective senior managers.

“It didn’t happen overnight, and so it is going to take awhile to turn it around,” Miller said. “But steps have to be taken in the right direction.”

As with their investigations into the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and other Obama administration missteps, House Republicans risk the perception that they are seeking political gain from the scandal in an election year. 

Miller has noted that his committee has voted along bipartisan lines in almost every action it has taken in its VA probe, and he said he hoped that trend would continue.

“I’m going to get with Bernie Sanders,” he told reporters, referring to his Democratic counterpart in the Senate. “We have to work together to resolve this, the House and the Senate jointly. This is too important to allow partisan politics to get involved.”

Obama on Friday said Shinseki had already begun taking steps to remove senior officials at underperforming VA facilities, and he said a top priority over the next several weeks would be to ensure that the department called every veteran waiting for an appointment to schedule one.

Yet the president suggested that over the long term, more funding might be needed from Congress to overhaul the VA, a request that could put budget-conscious Republicans in a tricky spot.