Across the street and down the block, a languid construction gang is renovating the Department of Veterans Affairs. When finished, entrenched bureaucrats will have a magnificent view of the White House from Vermont Avenue at a cost of $43 million.
Nobody asks questions because any veterans’ boondoggle has been “untouchable.” The gun lobby, the abortion lobby and the welfare lobby all are opposed by powerful counterforces, but the veterans’ lobby has no opposition - which is why it causes the most wasteful special-interest spending in Washington.
The bloated DVA employs a quarter-million people; half the males are nonveterans; 7,163 make more than $100,000 a year.
Spending shot up from $23 billion in 1980 to $37 billion now, even as the aging veterans’ population declined from 31 to 26 million. The DVA’s 54,000 hospital beds are 23 percent unfilled.
Even so, the Clinton DVA is spending $494 million building hospitals (not including the palace rehab on Vermont Avenue).
When 21 surgeons in six hospitals performed no surgery in a recent year, nobody was laid off or transferred - despite an inspector general auditor’s comment that “surgeons should be doing some surgery.”
Ronald Reagan, supposed foe of big government, elevated the Veterans Administration to cabinet status. George Bush was no less obsequious to the special interest: “There is only one place for the veterans of America, in the Cabinet Room, at the table with the president.”
What other lobby gets such access?
When Ed Derwinski, Bush’s veterans’ secretary, dared to suggest that three under-used rural hospitals be opened for use by local poor whites, blacks and American Indians, the vets’ lobby demanded his scalp.
“I was dumped,” Derwinski tells me, “because Jim Baker panicked and thought he had a deal with the American Legion and VFW to get their support. But the rank and file didn’t go for Bush anyway.”
Who is Bill Clinton’s man to counter the power of the veterans’ lobby? Jesse Brown, a combat veteran, was president of the Disabled American Veterans; a lobby fox runs the henhouse. Brown tells me, “The private sector, motivated by profit, cannot meet the unique needs of veterans.”
But nine out of 10 veterans disagree; 23 million have chosen private medicine over the lobby’s government largesse.
Of the fewer than three million who turn to the DVA, less than half are cared for because they were wounded or fell ill while in service. The seriously disabled, in Lincoln’s words, have “borne the battle”; they deserve the best care - and not the second-rate treatment now given because the lobby wants more socialized medicine so as to enlist more members.
Give the lobby this: Never have we had a more controlled experiment in the philosophy of government than in our treatment of veterans after World War II.
In providing free education to returning veterans, the government wisely took the voucher route; under the GI Bill, vet students chose their own schools and the feds paid the bill. Result: A generation received the best higher education without the creation of a self-perpetuating government bureaucracy.
But in providing the same veterans with health care, the government foolishly went into the hospital business. Result: We have built the nation’s largest and most bureaucratic health care system, now seeking ways to cover dependents of a declining veteran population to justify the lobby’s continued rip-off.
What’s to be done to help deserving veterans while protecting deserving taxpayers?
Alan Simpson in the Senate and Bob Stump in the House (with Jerry Lewis at Appropriations) head the committee baronies long dominated by the predatory veterans’ lobbyists. They should:
1. Put out to pasture the sacred cow known as Veterans Affairs. Rent its fancy office space to private insurance companies.
2. End benefits for non-service-related injuries and illnesses. Privatize veterans’ hospitals and offer free insurance to disabled veterans.
3. Reveal OMB’s secret that DVA nursing home care costs more than at a comparable privately run home - and give indigent veterans vouchers to grow old in dignity.
Time for a new lobby: Veterans Against Special Treatment (VAST). Most of us taxpaying vets are ready to join.
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