Open up the 'iron triangle' that stultifies vets policy

Open up the 'iron triangle' that stultifies vets policy
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Federal policy toward veterans is dominated by the “Big Six” interest groups: American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans, American Veterans, and Vietnam Veterans of America. While these powerful lobbies have notched many achievements, they have also made it extremely hard to introduce new ideas, program modernizations, or any sort of innovation into government services for vets. That’s why veterans have a disability system built on antiquated WWI-era concepts of what injured persons are capable of. That’s why our health system for veterans is outrageously lumbering and scandal-plagued.

By completely dominating the policy conversation, putting an inordinate focus on benefit payments, and frowning on new practices, the “Big Six” have had the effect of stagnating national approaches to veterans. They’ve promoted an inward focus on entitlements for vets, instead of an outward focus that would help vets bring their talents to bear in civilian society. Veterans are civic and economic assets, not needy victims, and veterans’ policies should be premised on helping them succeed in that way.

Instead, policymaking has aimed narrowly at expanding the Veterans Affairs department. It has often been premised too much on pity and too little on pride. And make no mistake: There is no clearer example of unbalanced political power in Washington than interest groups operating in the name of veterans. The veterans lobby comprised of the “Big Six,” the Congressional committees on vets, and the Veterans Affairs department (the largest and most scandal-plagued civilian bureaucracy in the entire Federal government) operate as an “Iron Triangle.” They jealously claim all issues touching on former service members, define them narrowly, and cordon them off from change that would disrupt their status quo.


It makes for a closed policy-making loop, with the interest groups dictating to the committees and the VA. As former White House Domestic Policy Council staffer Yuval Levin once put it, “It is impossible to overstate the political power of the veterans interest groups over the VA. The simplest way to describe it is that they get everything they want, period.”

While this dominance has borne fruit in areas like extraordinarily generous G.I. education benefits, it has also suffocated desperately needed reforms. Concerns about whether policies are truly the best ways to help vets flourish, or whether they are fiscally sustainable, are suppressed. Question the conventional wisdoms of the “Iron Triangle,” and you will be hit with serious political repercussions. The effect is a one-way rachet in which benefits are perpetually expanded in existing forms, without reference to effectiveness and efficiency, without connection to the true long-term interests of most vets, without regard for the wider wellbeing of the country.

The veto power of the “Big Six” is exacerbated by a lack of high-quality research and alternative centers of expertise. Gary Schmitt and Rebecca Burgess of the American Enterprise Institute recently warned of “scholarly neglect” of veterans issues. New efforts “to generate knowledge about veterans and society are rare,” they note. The knowledge deficit is made worse by the fact that only a very small and shrinking percentage of our population has served in the military.

Philanthropists, businesses, and academics can provide valuable antidotes to this problem. Donors can fund research at think tanks and universities. Companies can try inventive approaches to unsolved problems.

When parties without an institutional stake in the outcome are included in debates about veterans, it can help dispel the traditionalist mindset that has stultified policy up to now. Donors and business people and independent researchers don’t answer to the interest groups that so intimidate our political class. Their experiments don’t have to go through the Congressional committees or be executed by the VA bureaucracy. They can test, explore, and innovate in areas where the VA and Congress are completely bogged down in business-as-usual.


One place where public-spirited donors are doing just that right now is in disability aid for vets. A group of foundations and individuals organized by The Philanthropy Roundtable put up $15 million to create the Independence Project — a randomized-control test of alternative ways of aiding those injured in service. In another year or two, high-quality findings on the best ways to help vets with disabilities thrive, be less dependent, and more productive and happy will start to become available.

There are many other areas where fresh thinking is needed to break logjams, incentivize healthier behavior, increase efficiency, and address urgent questions like these:

  • How can we improve health care for veterans both inside the VA and across society at large?
  • What new tools could be employed to enhance mental health among vets?
  • What talents do veterans bring to communities, and how can we maximize their use?
  • What national challenges can former servicemembers help us solve in their civilian lives?
  • How can vets fill crucial gaps in our economy?

We need much more willingness to explore untried methods of delivering training and services for veterans, based on high-quality, dispassionate research. That will require insights from patriots outside of today’s “Iron Triangle.”

Our national leaders should start welcoming new participants into policymaking for veterans. The men and women who have worn our nation’s uniform deserve something more innovative than hoary old interest-group politics.

Shaun Rieley directs programs for veterans at The Philanthropy Roundtable. He previously served as policy analyst and special projects manager for Concerned Veterans for America, and before that as assistant director of the National Legislative Division of The American Legion’s National Headquarters in Washington, D.C. He served as an infantryman in the Maryland Army National Guard, where his service included a tour in Iraq and a tour in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. A longer version of this argument will be published in the Fall issue of Philanthropy magazine, published by The Philanthropy Roundtable.