Welcome VA reform bill

The Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center. (Grace Beahm/File)

President Obama's constant message leading into the fall elections is that Congress is in "gridlock" and "can't seem to do anything" because of Republican obstruction, a charge repeated by other leading Democrats.

What, then, explains the pending success of bipartisan legislation to reform and rescue the Department of Veterans Affairs from its disastrous failures?

Agreement was reached over the weekend between the chairmen of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees on a reconciliation of separate bills passed by the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate, giving time to enact the urgently needed reforms before Congress goes on holiday at the end of the week.

There were plenty of contentious disputes to settle, particularly the question of cost.

The Congressional Budget Office, denied accounting details by VA, estimated that the bill could cost as much as $50 billion a year. The VA said it needs only $17 billion.

That's a huge difference.

The Senate-House compromise plan will provide $6.5 billion to hire more doctors and nurses and make physical improvements, and another $10 billion to allow veterans to access non-VA care.

Yes, that sounds like a shot in the dark. But it is a positive starting point toward dealing with the challenges facing the VA - and the veterans it's supposed to effectively serve.

The actual costs ultimately will be determined by what it takes to work down the VA backlog and provide care for veterans who live too far away to make a visit to the nearest VA facility feasible.

The bill will also give the VA secretary more control over the firing of senior executives in the department, and require him to keep Congress informed of steps to improve the appointments process.

The VA got into trouble in part because, on taking office, President Obama unilaterally announced that illnesses related to exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam war and to post-traumatic stress disorder would be treated free of charge. This major expansion of responsibility fell on an agency that had not done sufficient planning for the influx of new patients and had not reached agreement with Congress on how the new caseloads would be handled and paid for. Bureaucrats protective of the VA's high reputation then found various ways to hide the fact that they were failing to meet the new demands in a timely fashion and were turning away very sick veterans.

One important lesson from this experience is that the executive must carefully work with Congress to implement major changes in federal agencies and programs.

The VA bill shows that Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill can work together to solve big problems when there is a clear need.

Now those lawmakers need to address clear needs for cooperation on other crucial issues. How about immigration and entitlement reform?