Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 10, 2016

Democrats Work to Mitigate VA Scandal as Political Issue

Begich has had to tackle the veterans affairs scandal as he seeks a second term in Alaska. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Politicians have always touted their support for military veterans back home. The willingness to expend federal dollars to provide the best care possible is popular across the partisan spectrum and is rarely cause for controversy.

But the issue has been turned on its head in recent months, with the fallout from the Veterans Affairs scandal prompting even the Obama administration to admit a “corrosive culture” at the VA affecting facilities across the country.

It’s also invited criticism of vulnerable House and Senate Democrats from Republican candidates and outside groups. For Republican challengers and operatives, the VA scandal offers a striking example of federal government mismanagement with a Democrat at the helm and provides another link between Democratic incumbents and President Barack Obama.

“Veterans’ issues tend to be bipartisan, non-controversial and not a big deal in most campaigns — which is why the VA scandal is a problem for Democrats this year,” Republican pollster Dan Judy said. “Democratic candidates in most of the competitive states already have the millstone of President Obama’s unpopularity around their necks, and the VA scandal is only making that weight heavier.”

Democratic operatives say privately they don’t believe this issue will hurt the party this fall. But incumbents and candidates are nonetheless moving quickly to fix the crisis and ensure it’s clear they are on the right side. As the targets of GOP attack ads, congressional Democrats have actively highlighted their past and present efforts on behalf of veterans to mitigate any potential for voter backlash.

In the House, Florida Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia, a top GOP target, announced he had held a “closed door meeting” with Paul M. Russo, director of the Miami VA Healthcare System. Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, who is running for Senate, introduced a bill to provide college-loan repayments for health care providers willing to work in VA facilities — a push covered in June by the Des Moines Register and at least two local television news stations.

Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., who’s been criticized by her GOP opponent, invited acting VA Secretary Sloan D. Gibson to the Fayetteville VA Medical Center — which an internal audit found to have some of the longest wait times. They met again on June 25 on Capitol Hill with other Democratic senators, including Mark Begich of Alaska.

Perhaps nowhere has the issue’s potential potency been more obvious than in the Last Frontier State, where Begich has been accused of ignoring the issue by his leading Republican opponent — veteran Dan Sullivan. Begich was recently hit with two TV ads from American Crossroads and its non-profit arm, Crossroads GPS.

“Sen. Begich is on the Veterans Affairs Committee, and he’s not looking out for us,” a veteran says in an ad backed by a $450,000 buy.

The ads were partly an effort to litigate the issue, as Begich had aired an ad in May touting his effort to expand access for veterans to local health care clinics. Begich countered with an ad running for two weeks that labeled the Crossroads ads false.

“It’s a bipartisan issue, and they took a shot at me which I think is a mistake,” Begich told CQ Roll Call. “If you look, they have taken down their ads on this issue, because I think voters know in Alaska this is one area I have worked hard on and we had done so before the rest of the country.”

In Texas, Rep. Pete Gallego woke up June 25 to a television spot from a group associated with the Koch brothers, Concerned Veterans for America, tying him to “some of the longest wait times in the nation” at Texas VA hospitals. “Congressman Pete Gallego admits he knew about it, yet did nothing to fix it,” the ad’s announcer says.

Gallego told CQ Roll Call the ad is “factually inaccurate” but said instead of overreacting he will continue working with local VA officials on solving the problem. He already has begun a series of tele-town hall meetings with veterans.

“The biggest thing for me is that I’ve been meeting with a lot of the local veterans … getting an unvarnished, non-political take from local veterans and vets groups,” he said. “For me, that’s the best way to separate the serious concerns from the partisan rhetoric.”

That group had previously released TV ads targeting Democratic Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Mark Warner of Virginia and Hagan. After meeting with Gibson in her office last week, Hagan released a lengthy statement reiterating her outrage and focus on the issue.

“These veterans have served our country bravely, and we owe it to them to get them the health care they have earned in a timely manner,” Hagan said.

The scandal — getting attention with hearings on Capitol Hill and with a bipartisan measure to fix the VA backlogs clearing the Senate 93-3 last month — is also giving members of Congress an issue they can champion back home, even if they aren’t facing tough re-election bids.

According to figures compiled by CQ, members of Congress released three times as many releases mentioning veterans in May and June this year as they did during the same months in 2012. The number of releases increased from 214 two years ago to 791 this spring.

While Begich works to counteract attacks aimed at his re-election, his Republican colleague Sen. Lisa Murkowski also is visiting with local veterans groups to talk about the scandal. On June 17, she released a letter calling for an inquiry into irregularities in the Alaska VA system and she is scheduled to meet with veterans later this week to discuss their concerns. Murkowski will not face re-election until 2016.

Hagan’s North Carolina counterpart, Republican Sen. Richard M. Burr, introduced the Veterans Choice Act. He also does not face voters until 2016.

In a reminder that all politics is local, the problems with health centers across the country have allowed politicians to showcase their concern for those who have served, earning them front-page headlines and a megaphone during a summer stretch when Americans usually tune out.

Ultimately, those with tough re-elections say their priorities are making sure local veterans feel the issue is being addressed.

As Garcia told CQ Roll Call, “My thinking is that our nation has a debt of gratitude and an obligation to these men and women who served us. … It’s an election so god knows who what will come up as an issue, but I feel pretty comfortable that veterans know I’m fighting for them.”


Related stories:

Robert McDonald Nomination May Stem the Bleeding in VA Health Scandal

Rob Nabors Cites ‘Corrosive Culture’ in VA Scandal

GOP Congressman Helps Uncover Another VA Waiting List Scandal

VA Conference Committee Hopes for Quick Deal Despite High Price Tag

Veteran Voices, Influence Fade on the Hill

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  • Jeffrey A. Trueman

    Congress is provided semi-annually IG Reports that identify fraud, waste and abuse in the “DVA”. Clearly, Congress has failed to uphold its separation of powers authority with regard to the treatment and compensation of U.S. Veterans and corruption in the DVA for far too long.

    The “FBI” needs to investigate Department of Justice (DOJ) lawyers and DVA-Inspector General (DVA-IG) criminal agents, individually and collectively for allowing 1 billion dollars in VA medical malpractice cases estimated at 4500 over the past 10 years.

    For the record, in these 10-years—under the IG Act—congress was provided
    semi-annual reports for them to uphold their separation of powers authority
    under the Constitution for which they have miserably failed.

    Getting to the point, under the December 4, 1950 Supreme Court of
    the United States (SCOUS) Feres Doctrine—Second-Rationale—Mandate-
    case or “Feres Doctrine Mandate or SCOUS-FDM” the DVA statutory system is supposed to be administered in a ‘no fault, non-adversarial’. Also, under 38 USC Section 1151 — no lawsuits need apply because the system is set up to quickly remedy medical malpractice cases and treat such negligence as service-connection for surviving Veterans. Obviously, if a Veteran dies under the DVA system their loved ones should be compensated monthly until the spouse passes on or the children are emancipated. This would cost essentially $3,000.00 per month.

    So, where does corruption in the DVA begin? The answer lies at the DVA-Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) who if not provided a get out of jail free card under 38 USC 511—and forced to carry out their oaths of office with oversight of the “FBI” and Office of Special Prosecutor (OSC) genuine change would happen and Veterans health care and lawful entitlements under the DVA-BVA system would be timely granted for the good of the nation as a whole.

    In plain language—clerks and managers should only be ‘monitoring’ not
    deciding FDM-claims for service-connection as the U.S. Armed Forces
    Military-Disability Evaluation System (DES) is better set up for that initial
    diagnoses and compensation rating prior to the member’s discharge from military service and to achieve a “smooth transition” mentality that is lacking under the unconstitutional Feres doctrine.

    Clearly, with a reported 750 lawyers in the DVA … all federal employees in the DVA must be questioned about witnessing or being told to ‘shut up’ about corruption in their respective agencies or departments and these employees must be defended by DOJ if they come forward. In short, how in the world can
    DVA help Veterans when clerks at VBA regional offices are practicing medicine
    and law without licenses in arbitrarily denying service-connection when the
    evidence screams no pre-existing medical conditions existed at the time of
    their entry into the U.S. Armed Forces is beyond the scope of justice!

    Henceforth, “Murder Inc. at the VBA” [or 22 Veterans committing suicide per day] awaiting VBA to grant them no-fault, non-adversarial benefits is the core of the problems in the “DVA” statutory system.

    When VBA does not lawfully grant service-connection to Veterans for
    their medical conditions—the VHA computers do not reflect the totality of the
    Veterans medical problems and thus the full picture of “FDM” medical
    entitlements are overlooked. Said VBA cancer and denial of due process and equal protection of Veterans’ Fifth Amendment property rights must come to an end without further delay and the Congress holds the “ready remedy” to amend 38 USC 511 by removing absolute power of the DVA secretary and his/her underlings who abuses their authority for financial gains and political/personal agendas over the best interest of the U.S. Veteran and loved ones under the high court’s Feres doctrine-second-rationale holding.

  • left wing

    democrats terrified that their messiah, obama the corrupt, child trafficker will take them down with him. obama and the dems knew that the care was substandard, but being the insane lefties, they were fine with the vets dying.

  • newguy68

    Why don’t the Democrats FIX the VA instead of worrying about its consequences for the upcoming election. Obama IS in charge, right ????

  • NavyMurph

    It goes beyond the VA. Veterans retuning from Iraq and Afghanistan face unemployment rates a full two percent hire than the national average, a factor that exacerbates the presence of additional challenges like PSD after over a decade of combat operations. After World War II, American society made a conscious effort to reintegrate service members with a realistic GI Bill (no longer possible given the structure and price of higher education these days). The ease in which folks in Washington convey their support for veterans, matched by society’s willingness to celebrate but no roll up their sleeves for returning vets, is doing real long term harm to our national security.

  • XPolitician

    I have been around
    this issue for almost 50 years. If Republican are so good at running
    government Reagan would have fixed the VA, and before him Nixon and Ford. The
    problem in the Department of Veteran Affairs is not all about Obama. It is
    about a self-centered ignorantly lethargic congress — both parties not
    interested in veterans. Veterans Affairs committees do not have glamor. The
    problem at the VA hospital is about how public service to your nation being
    perverted. It is about the American unwillingness to get a handle on decent
    healthcare for all Americans. It is about American unwillingness to face up to its
    obligations to those who fought all their wars — all wars, not just Iraq
    and Afghanistan. What I have seen for 50 years is a political an ongoing
    public relations gimmick on and on with all sorts of proclamations about
    veterans being served, ending there. The VA have a gimmick to increase their aloofness from
    veterans having employees wear name tag, a gimmick proclaiming they are veterans
    too. PTSD treatment is a farce all over the nation. It is mostly about $$$ VA compensation.
    Really the VA system is unwilling to really change; they are putting its high
    level big paycheck employees first, and the guy or gal coming back from war way
    down on the list. Most VA employees would not know a combat veteran if they
    talked to one. In fact to most Americans a combat veteran is someone who has
    put on a uniform at some point in their life.. At the VA hospital there is more
    effort in building new buildings, enlarging old ones, all without the parking spaces. Get rid of the massive hospitals and
    send them to private clinics. Let teaching medical schools find new hospitals
    to train in. A huge problem for the VA is too jobs like building maintenance,
    or grounds keepers having nothing to do with serving the veteran. Lastly all
    and all the VA has is too many employees. Treat combat veterans first before homeless veterans.

  • Chuck Itt

    Liberals just want your stuff.

  • Payton Manning

    For a brief introduction to the similarities between socialist ideology and today’s liberalism, I generally refer people to Igor Shafarevich’s brilliant essay Socialism in Our Past and Future:

  • Robert Smith

    Although liberty and collectivism both offer “equality”, liberty offers equality of opportunity while socialism offers equality of servitude.

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