More than a year ago, I wrote a column calling for Retired 4-star General Eric Raymond Shinseki to step aside as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, given the utter mess in that department. James Koutz, the American Legion Commander at the time, led a round of criticism from traditional veterans groups:
“While we do not deny that problems and inefficiencies exist within VA and VA-related activities and programs, placing the blame on Secretary Shinseki is wholly unwarranted and disingenuous."
Today, the Legion changed course:
"It's a story of poor oversight and failed leadership," said American Legion Cmdr. Daniel Dellinger, who also hailed the former Army chief of staff's decorated military record. "This is the most difficult thing I've ever had to do."
And it's true, Shinseki is an extremely decent and admirable man with a heroic record of military service. But he hasn't done very well adapting the VA to the information age or to the generation of troops returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. The last straw for the Legion, apparently, was a report that 40 veterans had died waiting for doctor's apointments while the VA's Phoenix office lied about wait times--and even had a secret list of veterans waiting as much as 200 days.
It's nice to have the Legion add to the pressure for genuine reform in VA. I thought they were being "disingenuous" last year. But--as I pointed out in the column--the problem doesn't end with Shinseki. It extends to the top of the totem pole, to the White House where President Obama, who cares deeply about this generation of veterans--supporting their organizations and quietly visiting the wounded in hospital--just can't seem to figure out how to reform a system that is a national embarrassment. One 4-star general told me that there are 2 VAs--an inner circle of excellent medical professionals who are devoted to their patients, surrounded by a vast mushy doughnut of public employees who have no incentive to work very hard. The stories of incompetence and insensitivity are endless. The VA may well be the worst bureaucracy in Washington.
True reform would require a tiny revolution. The President could ask the Congress to allow him a two-year experiment in lifting the civil service laws that make it practically impossible to fire those clogging the mushy doughnut. That's a big fight, but a worthy one: There is no creative destruction in government, no accountability--and without accountability, efficiency is nearly impossible. And it might not be a bad thing if the President tried something to change the rather torpid and depressing conversation going on in Washington right now.
Correction: the initial version of this article didn't include General Shinseki's first name.