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Saturday, December 3, 2016

WASHINGTON — If you want a prime example of what’s wrong with our politics, study the response to the veterans’ health care scandal. You would think from the coverage that the only issue that mattered to politicians was whether Gen. Eric Shinseki should be fired.

Shinseki is a true patriot, and his resignation as Veterans Affairs secretary on Friday calls Congress’ bluff. He played his part in a Washington sacrificial ritual. Will the politicians now be honorable enough to account for their own mistakes?

Thanks to Shinseki’s latest selfless act for his country, you can at least hope that we will move on to the underlying questions here, to wit: Why was the shortage of primary care doctors in the VA system not highlighted much earlier? Why did it take a scandal to make us face up to the vast increase in the number of veterans who need medical attention? And why don’t we think enough about how abstract budget numbers connect to the missions we’re asking government agencies to carry out?

It’s an election year, so it’s not surprising that the Republicans are using the vets scandal against President Obama and the Democrats, though there is a certain shamelessness about the ads they’ve been running, given the failures of the previous administration.

Shinseki and Obama might have averted this by pushing Congress much harder, much earlier to give the agency the tools it needed to do right by vets. And as a general matter, I wish Obama spent more time than he has on fixing government and improving administration. Progressives rightly assert that active, competent government can make things better — which means they need to place a high priority on making it work better. This would include, as The Washington Post editorialized, a serious engagement with civil service reform.

It’s also fair to ask why Shinseki did not move faster elsewhere, notably on what the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) called the department’s “egregious failure to process the claims of our veterans” in a timely and effective way. (For what it’s worth, I raised this concern in a column in November 2012.)