Editorial May 30, 2014

TheWeekinCongress.com

Editorial

“The list of veteran-related bills is a lengthy one yet complaints about how the VA operates continue.”

It seems like veterans are forgotten twice; once during the drumbeat to war when the costs of engagement are estimated but the residual costs of war, caring for veterans for their entire life, is not included, and second, during most of the year. Then Memorial Day rolls around and legislation pours to the floor.

There are an estimated 30 million veterans in this country, about ten percent of the country, and because of that it is rare that any Member of Congress votes against a bill benefitting veterans and there are many; over fifteen this year so far. All bills – aside from authorizations and appropriations when benefit amounts are proposed, usually increased – try to solve some problem or another regarding veteran benefits. This has been going on for decades so why, then, do we experience such disasters as the Walter Reed Hospital matter during the Bush Administration and now the death of veterans waiting on a list that appears to have been not so much of a waiting list but a place to schedule the needed appointment even when the appointment is not actually scheduled.

The list of veteran-related bills is a lengthy one yet complaints about how the VA operates continue. Several years back the cry was that veterans hadn’t a clue about what benefits were available, how to find them and how to apply so Congress put some money into a program that would reach out to veterans with information of benefits and how to get them. But veterans still have that problem.

There appears to be a contradiction, then; Members of Congress speak passionately about the service veterans have given to this country but provide ineffective solutions time and time again.

This week we saw four bills addressing certification of VA medical staff, identifying and helping to resolve issues with managers meeting work performance requirements, another similar bill about managers and performance, and another defining Gulf War Illness as a forerunner to treating the disease affecting 25% of Gulf War veterans. These are important issues to address but why now? Why not sooner?

We know that the VA has some kind of issue covering the bases it is charged to cover. One of those areas is a lengthy back up of disability claims. The bill, HR 2189, aimed to resolve those backups, was passed 404 to 1 by the House on October 28, 2013, was referred to the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs on October 29th, and has sat there ever since.

Claims by veterans require a physician to sign off. This month’s revelations would indicate that there are not enough VA physicians to handle the load. HR 2189 would have helped solve that problem by allowing the VA to contract with non-VA physicians to do the disability evaluations. Just that element of the bill alone would not only help solve backups in claims processing and medical procedures but another problem veterans have; a long drive to a VA Medical Center that could be resolved by using a local, VA-approved physician.

Amendments to H.R.4486, the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2015 provide additional funds to aid in solving the claims backlog with one amendment dedicated to providing funds for digitally scanning claims documents. Well, that’s good but with all of the issues regarding claims and the VA’s ability to do its job over the years should veterans have expected to wait until FY 2015 for the solution when digital scanning has been available for decades?

Something is wrong here and it appears to be that the passion Congress expresses about helping veterans is not realistically reflected in the laws they pass to do so. ##

Why I Still Have Faith in Congress

By Lee H. Hamilton

 

They set the bar high — promising strong leadership, a firm hand on the legislative tiller, and great policy accomplishments — then usually fail to clear it. “

Hamilton

Hamilton

It’s depressing to read poll after poll highlighting Americans’ utter disdain for Congress. But it’s my encounters with ordinary citizens at public meetings or in casual conversation that really bring me up short. In angry diatribes or in resigned comments, people make clear their dwindling confidence in both politicians and the institution itself.

With all Congress’s imperfections — its partisanship, brinksmanship, and exasperating inability to legislate – it’s not hard to understand this loss of faith. Yet as people vent their frustration, I hear something else as well. It is a search for hope. They ask, almost desperately sometimes, about grounds for renewed hope in our system. Here’s why I’m confident that we can do better.
Let’s start with a point that should be obvious, but that people rarely notice: Our expectations are too high. In part, this is our elected officials’ fault: they over-promise and under-perform. They set the bar high — promising strong leadership, a firm hand on the legislative tiller, and great policy accomplishments — then usually fail to clear it.
Which should come as no surprise. Congress is not built for efficiency or speediness. On almost every issue, progress comes in increments. The future of the American health care system may appear to hang on the debate raging these days about the Affordable Care Act, but this is just the latest installment of a long-running fight that began even before the creation of Medicare and Medicaid almost five decades ago.
Congress deals with complex issues over many years and, sometimes, dozens of pieces of legislation. Focusing on any one moment in our legislative history is to miss the slow but undeniable advance of progress on Capitol Hill.
I also tend to be more patient with congressional leaders than many people who share their frustrations with me. Our political leaders confront a terribly difficult political environment: the country is both deeply and evenly divided along partisan and ideological lines. Getting 218 votes in the House and 60 votes in the Senate can be a punishing task. It takes skill, competence, and a great deal of passion to make progress in this kind of environment — especially when those in Congress who are dedicated to finding a way forward have to face colleagues who do not appear to want the system to work.
This brings me to a third point. If 50 years of watching Congress closely have taught me anything, it’s to wait until the end of a congressional session to see what members actually accomplish. Despite all the bickering, roadblocks, delays, and grandstanding, Congress can often pass significant legislation by the end of a session, even if it can’t do everything we expect of it.
And members of Congress are good politicians. Most try hard to understand what the people want, and try to bring about meaningful change, at least within their ideological framework. It may take a while, but Congress in the end responds to public sentiment. That is why it will pass the government’s basic funding bills this year, having learned from the public outrage over last year’s government shutdown.
Finally, Congress has proven over its long history that even in the most difficult circumstances it can be astoundingly productive. The very first Congress, meeting at a time of enormous political uncertainty and financial trouble, was able to firm up the new government’s structure and set the course for the nation’s future.
At one of the darkest times in our recent history, during the height of the Watergate scandal — when tensions between Congress and the White House and between Democrats and Republicans were no less pointed than they are now — Congress and President Nixon were still able to collaborate on the Federal Aid Highway Act, the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Authorization, the Endangered Species Act, the Legal Services Corporation Act, an overhaul of the farm subsidy program, and an increase in the minimum wage.
Congress often has risen above periods of great contention. It possesses a resilience that is obvious from the perspective of decades. Building on that search for hope in our system, and on the long historical record, Americans have good reason to believe that Congress can and will do better.

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.