Veterans’ suicides are an epidemic

There is rare universal agreement of this fact from republicans and democrats, Congress and the administration, stakeholders and lawmakers — but veteran suicides being a huge issue is one thing both sides can agree on. 

In an effort to find a solution, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee (HVAC) held a rare evening hearing, hoping that the primetime schedule would attract attention and attendance from members and the media who often neglect this particular committee assignment in favor of more salacious storylines and more lucrative fundraising opportunities.  

{mosads}In addition to the evening start time, given the serious nature of the topic, Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) also stated that Monday’s hearing would be the first in a series to address this crucial issue.

Currently, it is unknown how many hearings Takano will hold, and how frequently. What is known, however, is that Congress’ inability to hold a series of consecutive in-depth hearings is not a problem unique to HVAC, and it has a detrimental effect on our government institutions.

In 1986, HVAC was grappling with the issue of whether veterans should have access to judicial review. Although the topic involved serious due process concerns for many veterans, it was not an epidemic of serious proportions like the suicide epidemic. Nonetheless, in May and June 1986, the Committee held four days worth of hearings and heard from 42 witnesses. This was typical for hearings during this period.

By contrast, Monday’s suicide hearing lasted only about two and a half hours and only had four witnesses. This is also typical for the current Congress — in averaging the length of time for all 15 hearings HVAC has held so far in the 116th Congress, the average hearing lasted only one hour and 53 minutes.

Unfortunately for veterans and for our nation, the congressional oversight hearing has been on the decline for the last several decades.

In the age of cable news and instant twitter fame, hearings are often more about theater than they are about oversight. Although members will tell you otherwise, many are more focused on going viral than they are on working across the aisle.

Oversight is essential to holding the executive branch accountable (a hot topic for the Trump administration), educating the public on important issues, and legislating effectively. Without it, the executive branch treats Congress with disdain, and the public interest is often subverted to partisan narratives that vary based on whether the Congressional majority is the same party as the president.

Unfortunately, in the world of veterans affairs and beyond, whereas members once embraced the institutional identity of the legislative branch, they now operate more like “field lieutenants in the president’s army” than “a separate and independent branch of government.”

Asking difficult questions about systemic failures within the executive branch – of which the VA has many — are oftentimes only considered acceptable there are partisan motives. The result is greater contempt for Congress from the executive branch, which leads to less transparency. Even when well-documented administrative failures are at issue, it is easy for the administration to dismiss any attempts to look into them as partisan attacks. This cycle has persisted through both democrat and republican congress’ and administrations.

As the Supreme Court held in the 1927 case, McGrain v Daugherty, “[a] legislative body cannot legislate wisely or effectively in the absence of information.” Yet, hearings, Congress’ primary vehicle for obtaining such information, seldom go anywhere near the level of depth necessary to do so.  

I would encourage Chairman Takano and HVAC to do things differently and set a higher standard for the rest of Congress with the proposed series of hearings on veterans’ suicides. Although committee chairmen, yield less power than they once did, they are by no means powerless to effectuate change.

First, the Committee should not be afraid to hold more frequent hearings with more witnesses more often. Doing so enhances members’ ability to assess the scope of an issue, offer possible solutions, and bring the public into the conversation by maintaining momentum.

Yes, members are busy, but they are technically elected to legislate and conduct oversight, not to fundraise or appear on television. Moreover, the best solutions often come from combining conventional wisdom, i.e., testimony from VA and veterans service organizations, with those from outside industries and policy areas, i.e., academics and those in the private sector. The Committee would also benefit from hearing more from veterans themselves.

Second, I would encourage Chairman Takano to remind members of the uniquely bipartisan nature of veterans’ issues. This unique status has become somewhat endangered recently, as VA is held up as a model both for and against single-payer health care by members who come down on both sides of the issue. Hyper-partisanship is a carcinogen that has managed to metastasize throughout most of Washington; we shouldn’t let veterans issues succumb to it any more than they already have.

Finally, I would encourage all members of HVAC to show up. In 2011, the House announced that it was going to promote better member attendance at hearings as a top priority that year. Many incoming freshman were surprised, as they thought this was part of their job. Indeed, attending hearings is part of members jobs, but in the age of the attention-challenged electorate, it is hard to satisfy all commitments. Shirking one’s oversight duty should no longer be considered an acceptable way to accommodate a busy schedule.

There is a saying in real estate that possession is nine-tenths of the law. When it comes to Congress, presence is nine-tenths of the job. So, members, please, show up. And while you’re at it, stay a while, and listen. You might learn something.

As summarized by Sherman Gillums, chief advocacy officer for AMVETS, Monday night’s hearing lead observers “to a cul-de-sac of nothing” as VA official and committee members “simply admired the problem and relished in its complexities” rather than proposing solutions.

Many congressional hearings do just that — and I would reiterate my invitation to HVAC to lead the charge toward taking back the power of effective oversight through a series of truly in-depth hearings on veterans’ suicide.

For veterans struggling with suicidal thoughts, their lives literally depend on it.

Rory E. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). Follow her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.

Tags House Committee on Veterans' Affairs Jeff Miller Mark Takano veteran suicides Veterans

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