WASHINGTON - At Robert McDonald's Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday, lawmakers called the job of heading the "broken," "failing" and "bankrupt" Department of Veterans Affairs all but impossible. The problems are so calcified, said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, that every time a scandal is exposed, "it's like deja vu, there we go again."
Yet nobody asked McDonald, whose nomination was unanimously supported by the panel Wednesday, a particulary hard question.
Such as, how can you bring the accountability we all want to see to a system in which it's so much harder to fire people than it is at Procter & Gamble, the company McDonald ran?
At a recent House hearing, whistleblower Jose Matthews, who was the chief of psychiatry at a VA hospital in St. Louis before he reported problems with record-keeping and patient care there, told the panel that "anyone involved in patient care enjoys almost lifetime tenure" in VA.
He and three other whistleblowers recounted how they'd been suspended and reassigned for reporting problems, while those who'd caused those problems, and had retaliated against the whistleblowers, remain in their jobs.
Maybe, as Veterans Affairs' Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., suggested jokingly, the senators didn't want to say anything to scare McDonald, a former Army captain who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy West Point, into running out of the hearing room. Or maybe the lawyers on the panel were sticking to the courtroom wisdom that you should never ask a witness a question to which you don't know the answer.
In any case, they instead pelted McDonald with flowers: "You've run a great company,'' said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., "I have no fear of what you will do; I have fear of what we will do to support you."
"There's no doubt in my mind he has the heart and the work ethic and the empathy'' to do the job, said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
But do all those fine qualities assure success? No, alas, and as if to remind us of that, Brown also praised the previous secretary, Eric Shinseki, who resigned amid reports of record manipulation and falsification and such long wait times that some veterans died waiting for care, though it's not clear the delays caused their deaths.
Senators did run down the list of all the problems McDonald will be expected to take on, including widespread mismanagement, fraud, a suicide epidemic, a shortage of doctors and nurses, technology that's still from another century despite vast outlays of cash, and a huge backlog of claims.
A couple of Republicans on the panel said they didn't think more money was the answer, though Sloan Gibson, acting VA secretary, recently told them the department needs $17.6 billion immediately. And then, sure enough, a couple of Democrats said that funding was, however, a necessary starting place: "I'm not going to sit here and say you don't need more money,'' said Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii.
In a navy pinstriped suit and ready smile, McDonald, who was introduced by Brown and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, the other senator from his home state, nodded frequently as the senators addressed him in the freezing-cold Dirksen Building on a 90-degree day.
He certainly sounded like a CEO, using the word "incentivize" and speaking of the need to "flow resources across the boundary" between the Department of Defense and VA.
He won't compromise the value of taking the "hard right over the easy wrong" that he learned at West Point, McDonald said, and promised to restore trust by, for starters, getting in some waiting lines like a veteran rather than as a secretary traveling with an entourage.
He also said he'd be handing out his cellphone number to all members of the congressional committees overseeing VA - and drew laughs when he said he expected to get theirs in return.
Though he obviously didn't have to convince anyone on a panel of people who can't wait for him to start, he said, "I desperately want this job, because I think I can make a difference."
Then he repeated the question all military men and women are trained to ask themselves: "If not me, who?"
"What we've got to do is figure out who wasn't" true to the values of VA, he said. And force them out, he implied. I stopped him as he was leaving to ask how he might do that, but he said, "I'm not taking questions today; I'm just saying hi."
Melinda Henneberger is a columnist for The Washington Post.
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