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Restoring VA’s mission

There are not many things that Americans unanimously agree on these days, but one thing everyone does seem to agree on is the honesty, integrity and virtue of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.  President Lincoln’s image is often invoked in both scholarship and pop culture as a symbol for strong leadership, equality, and the need to work collaboratively to make our country better.  Given Lincoln’s reputation as a staunch advocate for morally upright ideas, and as one of the most venerated heroes of our history, it’s infuriating that the current leadership at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs leadership is making a mockery of President Lincoln’s image. 

The VA’s mission statement is “to fulfill President Lincoln’s promise ‘To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan’ by serving and honoring the men and women who are America’s Veterans.”  This quotation is from Lincoln’s second inaugural address, given on March 4, 1865.  VA adopted this portion of the address as its mission statement in 1959.  A plaque with the quotation engraved on it appears outside VA’s Central Office in Washington, DC.

{mosads}Despite the quotation on the outside of the building, what happens inside VA Central Office is another story.  To this end, current VA leadership seems far more interested in enriching themselves rather than caring for veterans.  For example, the VA Office of the Inspector General recently confirmed that Kim Graves and Diana Rubens, two senior executive service employees, manipulated their positions of authority to create job opportunities for themselves in Minneapolis and Philadelphia, respectively, which involved less responsibility but the same high level of pay.  And, if that wasn’t enough, they also improperly accepted a total of nearly $400,000 in relocation expenses from the government, at a time when the VA has lobbied Congress for additional funding to keep its medical facilities up and running. 

Further demonstrating their preference for self-interest over the best-interest of veterans, both Rubens and Graves opted not to show up to a Congressional oversight hearing, prompting the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs to issue subpoenas for only the third time in its history.  Both women have been referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for possible criminal prosecution and Allison Hickey, the under secretary for Benefits, resigned amidst the scandal.  Congress will hold a follow up hearing on November 2nd.  Should they choose to comply with the subpoena, both Rubens and Graves would greatly benefit from behaving more like “honest Abe” than the self-interested bureaucrats they have shown themselves to be thus far in the investigation. 

Administrative agencies like the VA often begin with a policy-oriented mission, such as, to paraphrase Lincoln, caring for veterans and their dependents.  However, due to the nature of burgeoning bureaucracies, missions often fade over time or disappear altogether.  This is clearly true of the current VA, and the culture of the organization desperately needs to change to reinvigorate the Department’s service to this mission.  Because conservative measures such as more staffing, more funding, and incremental fixes to outmoded systems have, to date, only compounded the VA’s problems rather than fix them, the only answer is more substantive reform.  Action on legislative proposals such as the VA Accountability Act, which would allow VA to remove or demote employees based on performance or misconduct is a step in the right direction.  Similarly, more substantive transformations to VA processes and procedures that emphasize public-private partnerships, rather than complete reliance on internal VA systems, would also go a long way toward much-needed cultural change at the agency.

In addition to reminding our nation of the importance of caring for “those who have borne the battle,” Lincoln also once said “if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”  The situations of Rubens and Graves show us that the character of those in charge of the VA has been tested, and they have failed.   Our nation’s veterans deserve better.

Riley is the principle of Riley-Topping consulting, a consultancy that specializes in issues pertaining to veterans law and policy.

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