House and Senate leaders on Friday extolled outgoing Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki as an honorable public servant, but praised his resignation amid reports of excessive wait times at VA health care facilities.
At the same time, Republicans indicated that their demands for oversight and accountability will continue despite the Cabinet secretary’s departure.
“Until the president outlines a vision and an effective plan for addressing the broad dysfunction at the VA, today’s announcement really changes nothing,” Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio told reporters. “One personnel change cannot be used as an excuse paper over a systemic problem.”
Boehner said the Senate should take up the House-passed bill that would allow the VA secretary to fire under-performing managers, a bill to which Shinseki objected, saying he already has that power. The speaker also said President Barack Obama should order VA officials to cooperate with congressional investigators.
“I will do everything I can to ensure that the Congress works to address the root causes of these systematic problems so that the men and women returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and those veterans already in the VA system, receive the care they deserve,” he said in a statement.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Veteran Affairs Committee, has been working in consultation with the White House on a counterpart to the House-passed bill that would allow VA senior executives to be fired.
Currently officials in what the federal government calls the “senior executive service” may be dismissed or demoted, with rare exception, only for misconduct.
The bill would include “expedited due-process protections” for senior executives facing removal or demotion for poor performance, something lacking in a House-passed bill, Sanders’ office has said.
Sanders on Friday said he was “sad” that Shinseki resigned, but stressed that he “looked forward to working with President Obama, the new VA leadership, and my Senate colleagues to” address the issues at the agency.
House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller of Florida has been working on another bill that would force the VA to outsource care for veterans who have been waiting for more than one month. He said in a statement that Shinseki is a good man, but his inner circle and the VA bureaucracy failed him.
“Right now, VA needs a leader who will take swift and decisive action to discipline employees responsible for mismanagement, negligence and corruption that harms veterans while taking bold steps to replace the department’s culture of complacency with a climate of accountability,” he said.
Senders’ GOP counterpart, Sen. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, said he will work with Acting Secretary Sloan D. Gibson, who was Shinseki’s deputy, to address the reports of secret wait lists and “disturbing problems” within the agency, and said he will back bills to send ailing veterans to outside caregivers. “It was the right decision, as new leadership was needed at the agency,” he said. “Along with new leadership, Congress must act to empower veterans facing unacceptable wait times at the VA with choice.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called on Obama to support both bills.
“The President must join with Congress to support legislation we will introduce next week to strengthen the ability of VA administrators to hire and fire those charged with providing care and, most importantly, give far greater flexibility to veterans to get the care they need and deserve, where and when they want it,” he said.
Obama has also said he may ask for more funding to address VA problems, but added that first he will tackle the managerial problems in the agency.
House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., told CQ-Roll Call that if Obama does want more funding he should make it known so appropriators can handle it in a conference report, particularly because the House has already passed their VA funding bill. “We need to know right away what he has in mind there, because we are, as you know, deep in the process,” he said. “I think the ball’s in his court right now to reorganize and reform that whole structure. You know, if along the way they need more money, we’ll take a hard look at that.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., also praised Shinseki for his service, but said his resignation was appropriate, given the recent preliminary report of systemic problems in the agency. He called for Obama to install a new VA leader “who possesses the skills, leadership ability and determination to correct the failings of the VA, support the thousands of VA workers who are committed to serving our veterans, and provide all of those who have bravely served with the timely care they have earned,” McConnell said. “This change of leadership is a meaningful initial step to meet our solemn obligations, but what’s still needed is an agreement by the president and his allies in Congress to join Republicans in legislation that would help to fix this system that has so failed our veterans.” Shinseki had been losing support among Senate Democrats. About a dozen had called for his resignation after the release of the an interim inspector general report. Among those Democrats were some facing tough re-election campaigns, including Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo
On Friday, Udall said that Shinseki’s “resignation alone doesn't fix the systemic problems within the VA. … The president and Acting Secretary Gibson must take immediate steps to restore veterans' faith in the VA and to ensure that veterans receive the services and care they've earned without further delay.”
Similarly, vulnerable House Democrats had been piling on the calls for Shinseki’s ouster. Rep. Ron Barber of Arizona, perhaps the Democrat most prone to lost his seat, said in a statement that his resignation was an “important step” in fixing VA problems.
“His decision today will allow us to move forward with the necessary top-to-bottom overhaul of the Veterans Health Administration’s systems and practices,” he said.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.