Across the street and down the block, a languid construction gang is renovating the Department of Veterans Affairs. When finished, entrenched bureaucrats will have a magnificent view of the White House from Vermont Avenue at a cost of $43 million.
Nobody asks questions because any veterans’ boondoggle has been “untouchable.” The gun lobby, the abortion lobby and the welfare lobby all are opposed by powerful counterforces, but the veterans’ lobby has no opposition — which is why it causes the most wasteful special-interest spending in Washington.
The bloated D.V.A. employs a quarter-million people; half the males are non-veterans; 7,163 make more than $100,000 a year. Spending shot up from $23 billion in 1980 to $37 billion today, even as the aging veterans’ population declined from 31 to 26 million. The D.V.A.’s 54,000 hospital beds are 23 percent unfilled.
Even so, the Clinton D.V.A. is spending $494 million building hospitals (not including the palace rehab on Vermont Avenue). When 21 surgeons in six hospitals performed no surgery in a recent year, nobody was laid off or transferred — despite an Inspector General auditor’s comment that “surgeons should be doing some surgery.”
Ronald Reagan, supposed foe of big government, elevated the Veterans Administration to cabinet status. George Bush was no less obsequious to the special interest: “There is only one place for the veterans of America, in the Cabinet Room, at the table with the President.” What other lobby gets such access?
When Ed Derwinski, Bush’s Veterans’ Secretary, dared to suggest that three under-used rural hospitals be opened for use by local poor whites, blacks and American Indians, the vets’ lobby demanded his scalp. “I was dumped,” Derwinski tells me, “because Jim Baker panicked and thought he had a deal with the American Legion and V.F.W. to get their support. But the rank and file didn’t go for Bush anyway.”
Who is Bill Clinton’s man to counter the power of the veterans’ lobby? Jesse Brown, a combat veteran, was president of the Disabled American Veterans; a lobby fox runs the henhouse. Brown tells me, “The private sector, motivated by profit, cannot meet the unique needs of veterans.”
But 9 out of 10 veterans disagree; 23 million have chosen private medicine over the lobby’s government largesse. Of the fewer than three million who turn to the D.V.A., less than half are cared for because they were wounded or fell ill while in service. The seriously disabled, in Lincoln’s words, have “borne the battle”; they deserve the best care — and not the second-rate treatment now given because the lobby wants more socialized medicine so as to enlist more members.
I didn’t always agree with Safire, but I think his point is a good one. Bipartisanship in government (and lack of competition in lobbying) generates groupthink and diminishes incentives for oversight. I don’t think any reasonable person disputes that vets, particularly wounded vets, deserve the nation’s support. But that consensus about ends shouldn’t get in the way of healthy arguments about means.