VA reform: Sen. Sanders' socialist agenda holding up help for America's veterans

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. The definition of insanity in Washington is when, despite painfully obvious facts and experiences, ideologically-slavish legislators insist the “solutions” (read: more money) that they’ve tried for years will finally solve persistent problems.

The latest personification of such insanity is Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the self-proclaimed socialist who also happens to be the chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs (VA) committee.

When Sen. Sanders took the helm of the committee last year, there was already a scandalous story about VA benefits backlog that had yet to break nationally. Still, he likely expected a fairly tranquil chairmanship on the historically bipartisan committee, simply funding the priorities of veterans organizations, members of Congress, and veterans.


Then, two things happened. First, Sen. Sanders introduced an expansive $30 billion veterans omnibus bill in February that foisted substantially more responsibilities onto the VA, flooding a system that was already overloaded. But, for the first time in decades -- thanks to the efforts of reform-minded Senators and outside groups -- the bill was defeated on the Senate floor. A clear message was sent: bigger doesn’t mean better.

Second came the public VA scandal in late April, when brave whistleblowers in Phoenix came forward and started the ongoing cascade of revelations that became the national disgrace known as the VA scandal.

A department that had been lavished with substantially more resources under this administration -- roughly 60 percent more funding since 2009 -- was unable to see patients promptly, and worse, was caught falsifying records to protect executive bonuses and hide the truth that veterans were dying as a result.

The reaction was strong and swift on Capitol Hill, with a common refrain: VA does not have a resource problem, it has a culture problem.

Even President Obama echoed this sentiment last month, saying, “before we start spending more money [at VA], our first job is to take care of some basic management issues that can be fixed.”

Shortly thereafter, accountability and veterans choice legislation overwhelmingly passed the House and the Senate.

Which brings us back to our favorite socialist, Bernie Sanders. Those House and Senate bills are now before a conference committee, in which -- as the Senate VA chairman -- Bernie Sanders has a large role. But, rather than negotiate in good faith to hammer out strong VA reform legislation that would finally hold VA executives accountable and finally give veterans the choice to see private doctors if they wait too long, Sanders is doing the only thing he knows how to do: throwing money at the problem. It’s insane, but he’s doing it.

In the face of overwhelming evidence, and an urgent crisis for our nation’s veterans, Bernie Sanders is insisting on $17.6 billion in additional VA funding—to hire more staff, build more facilities, and upgrade IT infrastructure.

Worse, the billions in spending he’s requesting is currently justified by three pages—three!—of information provided by the VA itself.

After all that has transpired, Sanders and the VA want Congress to pass a massive spending bill for VA…so we can find out what’s in it. Sorry, we’ve tried that before and it didn’t go so well.

Even if the additional spending Sanders is requesting is valid, it does not address immediate crisis of care and should be managed through the regular budgeting cycle. Moreover, why should we build more capacity in a system that is failing, instead of finding immediate ways for veterans to get the care they need?

Simple solutions need to come first: like longer hours at VA clinics, asking certain doctors to see more than a handful of patients per day, and giving veterans private choice could address urgent needs. Instead, Sanders has introduced a poison pill of additional spending to a conference committee delicately working in good faith to forge real bipartisan reform for veterans.