Hill Committees Scramble for a Piece of Walter Reed Oversight

Posted March 5, 2007 at 4:34pm

Faced with spiraling allegations of neglect at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other veterans’ health facilities — and suggestions that lax Congressional oversight may have let the problems fester — House and Senate committees are now rushing to get involved, raising the specter of overlapping investigations, competing legislative fixes and jurisdictional uncertainty.

“Everybody seems to be looking into it,” said Loren Dealy, a House Armed Services Committee spokeswoman. “It is not one of those clear-cut issues” for jurisdiction.

While Dealy said that turf battles have not yet emerged — in part because she is not yet aware of any legislation proposed on the House side — they could arise eventually, with the House and Senate Armed Services and Veterans’ Affairs committees, the House Appropriations subcommittee on Defense and the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security and foreign affairs already scheduling hearings. Other panels may try to stake claims on the issue as well.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee considers its jurisdiction to be “very broad,” said one committee aide, and while the primary jurisdiction will fall to Armed Services, if there is more than one bill, additional committees could get involved.

“These things often happen,” the aide said.

Legislation already has emerged on the Senate side.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman and presidential candidate Joseph Biden (D-Del.) last week joined with 20 fellow Senators in introducing legislation to ensure that wounded service members receive quality treatment, care and services.

The Dignity for Wounded Warriors Act (S. 713) will require improved facilities and robust inspections; reduce paperwork and eliminate red tape for recovering service members; provide improved counseling services for service members and their families; and improve support for families of recovering service members, according to a March 1 announcement by Biden.

“We have a sacred obligation to care for those we send into battle,” Biden wrote. “As a former patient of Walter Reed, I know the unique challenges it faces, but I was appalled to learn our soldiers were living this way. It is utterly inexcusable, and we must ensure it never happens again. This legislation is the first step in fixing a broken outpatient and disability evaluation system.”

One Republican aide expressed optimism that members of both parties will work together without devolving into partisan bickering.

The situation at Walter Reed “transcends parties. Injured service members deserve the best care,” the GOP aide said.

Since news broke last month of substandard veteran care at Walter Reed, several top Army leaders have resigned or stripped of their positions, including Maj. Gen. George Weightman, the medical center’s commander, and Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey.

“I am disappointed that some in the Army have not adequately appreciated the seriousness of the situation pertaining to outpatient care at Walter Reed,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said at a March 2 Pentagon briefing. “Some have shown too much defensiveness and have not shown enough focus on digging into and addressing the problems.”

On the same day, in response to Harvey’s resignation, House Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) issued a statement calling Washington Post reports of conditions at Walter Reed’s outpatient facilities “deeply disturbing.”

Army Undersecretary Pete Geren will serve as acting secretary of the Army until the job is filled on a permanent basis. Prior to moving to the Defense Department, Geren was a Democratic member of Congress from 1989 until 1997, representing Texas’ 12th district.