Robert McDonald, the Obama administration's nominee for Veterans Affairs Secretary, is sworn in prior to his nomination hearing on July 22, 2014.

Robert McDonald, the Obama administration's nominee for Veterans Affairs Secretary, is sworn in prior to his nomination hearing on July 22, 2014. AP Photo

A New VA Secretary Is Just One Step on a Long Road to Reform

Congress has little time before the August recess to pass a sweeping VA reform bill that will determine whether Robert McDonald succeeds where his predecessors have failed. By Molly O’Toole

This story has been updated.

The easiest part about the job of the next Secretary of Veterans Affairs may be getting it.

The Senate Veterans Affairs committee on Tuesday gave unanimous support to former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald to serve as VA secretary, green lighting President Barack Obama’s nominee, who is expected to be confirmed before Congress leaves for its August recess next week.

But more than 50 days since former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned in the wake of a still-growing scandal over wait times at VA health facilities, McDonald’s confirmation is just one, albeit significant, step forward for the Sisyphean effort he is set to soon lead: fixing a VA broken in both spirit and function.

“For me, taking care of veterans is personal. I come from and care deeply for military families,” McDonald said at the hearing, describing himself as a “forward-looking leader.” McDonald is an Army veteran and graduate of West Point, but it’s his business acumen that distinguishes him from the string of military officials who have served before him in the cabinet post -- a welcome departure that many say is badly needed as Congress attempts to overhaul the behemoth $163 billion agency.

“While there is much that is going well, there have been systematic failures,” he said. “There is a lot of work to do to transform the department and it will not be easy, but it is essential and can be achieved.”

Ranking Member Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., put it another way: “It’s hard to know why anybody would take this job.”

To which McDonald responded: “If not me, who?”

“You come to this position with heightened scrutiny because the issues affecting the veterans administration of course do not go away with a change of leadership at the top,” Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said.

“There are a lot of issues facing the VA, but I think people will want to pass Mr. McDonald right now,” committee chairman Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told Defense One on Monday night, saying that no one had raised any specific concerns with him about the president’s pick to replace Shinseki. “I hope very much the hearing goes well and that he gets the votes he needs to get into his new job before the August break.” Sanders said the committee will formally vote Wednesday to pass McDonald’s nomination to the Senate.

But when asked about the growing likelihood that McDonald’s confirmation will be the only action taken on VA reform before the recess, Sanders said, “You’re right, you’re absolutely right -- I am concerned.”

“Look, we are working on it right now very, very hard, and you’re right, we are up against the wall -- there are real time limits on are we gonna get this thing done, and I hope we will.” 

Early momentum in Congress to respond quickly to the crisis with a sweeping VA reform bill has ebbed in recent weeks, replaced by intransigence over the estimated price tag of $30 billion per year beginning in 2016, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The Senate early last month overwhelmingly passed a $35 billion VA reform bill using emergency funding “as a cost of war,” according to Sanders. The Senate bill closely followed the House’s unanimous passage of a similar measure to address wait times and accountability -- but offsetting the cost. Lawmakers’ pledged to have a bill ready for Obama’s pen by the July 4 recess, but the bipartisan committee charged with hammering out the differences between the two chambers’ legislation quickly became jammed over the question of how it should be paid for.

Sanders reported a breakthrough in negotiations Monday night, with senators agreeing to include some budget cuts to offset the final bill. He said he expects to “end up with” final funding substantially less than what the Senate voted for. At the hearing Tuesday, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan. -- the first senator to call for Shinseki’s resignation -- went so far as to suggest that senators not adjourn for the August recess before reaching a conclusion on the legislation.

Despite the progress, Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., expressed cynicism that the VA bill will pass.

“When we’re being asked to spend a few dollars to take care of these people who have come back in need, as our veterans, it looks to me they’re going to come back to nothing,” Reid said on the Senate floor Monday. “Why? Because they have to spend some money on these people who they were glad to spend the money to take them to war.”

"It is time to get it done now," Vice President Joe Biden said in a speech Monday at the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention in St. Louis. "Stop fooling around.”

“Congress has a job to do," he added. "We urge them to quickly confirm Bob McDonald and finish the work on the veterans legislation currently in conference.”

Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson -- who just last week told Congress the embattled agency would need some $17 billion more over the next three years to meet demand and cut down on wait times -- followed the vice president at the Veterans of Foreign Wars conference on Tuesday and said McDonald is the man for the job.

“Bob and I have been friends for 40 years, beginning with our time together as cadets at West Point,” Gibson said. “He brings strong leadership and exceptional management skills to this role, and he has one of the strongest moral compasses I’ve ever seen, always has had. This combination of executive skills and values are ideal for VA at this critical time,” he said, adding, “I hope for a speedy confirmation.”

While expressing unanimous support for McDonald, committee members questioned him on potential solutions to the long list of problems plaguing the VA, such as wait times; manipulating data; inconsistent care, particularly on mental health; bureaucracy; perverse incentives and retaliation against whistleblowers.

McDonald laid out his broad plan for “immediate actions” if confirmed, including asking employees to bring forward any concerns, getting out in the field, restructuring employees’ performance metrics and reorganizing the department.

“The VA is in crisis. The veterans are in need. There is much to do,” McDonald said. “But I can think of no higher calling.” 

The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee voted 14-0 on Wednesday to confirm McDonald as VA secretary. 

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