VA Secretary Slams Congress at VFW Convention Over Budget Cuts

VA Secretary Robert McDonald speaks at a news conference at the Veterans Affairs Department in Washington, Monday, Sept. 8, 2014. McDonald discussed his visits at VA facilities across the country and outlined his priorities.Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
VA Secretary Robert McDonald speaks at a news conference at the Veterans Affairs Department in Washington, Monday, Sept. 8, 2014. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

PITTSBURGH -- Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald told the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention here on Tuesday that veterans are being hurt by an ideology in Washington that demands huge VA budget cuts and a system that will keep the best qualified people from joining the department.

Some in Washington even question the need for a VA, he said.

"All of this lack of flexibility to give veterans choice, to [budget] cuts, to discussions about whether veterans need medical assistance to call their own, leads to the same place," he said. "A place where the needs of veterans are second to ideology, to scoring political points, where VA is set up to fail, a place where there are no winners."

McDonald said that is unacceptable to anyone who claims to support the VA's mission to support veterans and their families.

The VA has asked for $168 billion for next year, of which $95 billion is mandatory spending programs. But the House of Representatives wants to cut the request by about $1.4 billion.

McDonald said that $1.4 billion cut would translate into $688 million less for health care, no funding for four major construction projects and six veterans' cemeteries, and the elimination of bonuses that VA needs to attract the best people it can.

McDonald did not go into detail on the House's issues with the VA and its budget, in particular the rationale offered by the House Veterans Affairs Committee leadership and others.

The committee has routinely excoriated the VA over a range of scandals, including delays on construction projects and, in the case of an unfinished facility near Denver, Colorado, cost overruns that have seen the total cost rise from less than $400 million to a projected $1.7 billion.

Congress also has been critical of the VA over a wait-times scandal in which veterans seeking an appointment were put on secret lists so that the official wait list reflected departmental goals. Investigations subsequently found that the delays in care contributed to some veteran deaths.

Congress has been demanding accountability, in particular the firing of officials who by negligence or plan enabled the secret lists.

For that and other issues lawmakers want to end bonuses to managers, especially since the record has shown managers at some VA facilities continued to draw a bonus after problems were uncovered on their watch.

More recently the committee passed legislation that would make all VA workers employees at will, meaning they could be terminated with little notice. The measure, which also would make it more difficult to appeal and fight their firing, was modeled on legislation passed last year that targeted the Senior Executive Service

VA officials argue that even Congress agrees that problem employees represent only a tiny percentage of VA's workforce, but that the measures they are attempting to put into law reaches all managers and employees.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com

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