The crush of demand for VA services in the wake of two wars was easily foreseeable, had Congress been on its toes. Legislators must exercise their oversight responsibilities more diligently, so as to catch problems before they mushroom.
Like other federal scandals before it, the mess involving VA hospitals has followed a well-trod path. First comes the revelation of misdoing. Then comes the reaction: a shocked public, an administration on the defensive, grandstanding members of Congress. Finally, major reform bills get introduced, debated, then put aside when the heat dies down, or the target agency gets more money thrown at the problem.
With the VA, we’re at the reform part of the cycle. The House and Senate have each passed their own legislation to fix the VA’s health system, including a massive infusion of money — at least $50 billion a year — to allow veterans to seek private health care. Fiscal watchdogs are crying foul, and the measures have ignited a furious debate over whether Congress should cut other programs. In its rush to address public outrage, Congress is proposing dramatic changes that could have benefited from more thorough consideration.
The irony is that this need not have happened — not with the VA, nor with the IRS or FEMA, or any of the other cases in recent years where the federal bureaucracy proved to be dysfunctional and Congress rushed in with a half-baked fix. Mostly what is needed is for Congress to do its job properly in the first place.
This means exercising its oversight responsibilities and catching problems before they mushroom. Diligent oversight can repair unresponsive bureaucracies, expose misconduct, and help agencies and departments become more effective. A lot of federal employees are doing good work, including at the VA; Congress needs to encourage that work while ridding the government of shoddy practices.