The year 2013 was a rough one for America. Our debt grew, topping $17 trillion, while our stature on the world stage diminished and our defense capabilities shrank. Despite billions of government dollars pumped into the economy, Main Street hiring sputtered while Wall Street saw record returns and welfare rolls expanded. All the while, the government takeover of health care — one-sixth of U.S. economic output — continues to unfold like a slow-motion train wreck.
The presidency of Barack Obama is in a virtual free fall, which is good news for partisans but bad news for America. When a president fails and the government is not capable of executing basic functions, America loses. And while I’m no fan of the president’s policies, I lament that, just one year into Obama’s second term, America is less respected by foes and less trusted by allies (and therefore less safe), more dysfunctional, and more indebted. While only new leadership in the White House can reverse America’s disastrous course, there are things, large and small, that Americans, and especially veterans, can do in 2014 to slowly right the ship of state. Veterans swore an oath to defend this country and our Constitution, and that responsibility needs to extend beyond battlefield service. If there was ever a time for veterans to step forward and selflessly advance domestic reforms — for the sake of America and in the spirit of sacrifice — it is now. Might I suggest a few resolutions for 2014.
The first is accountability. If leaders and managers are not held accountable, then nothing ever changes. In the military, if a commander fails to accomplish the mission, he’s fired. The same tenet ought to be applied across the federal government, where bloated and expanding bureaucracies are insulated from reform.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is a perfect example. The year 2013 saw the backlog of pending disability claims explode to nearly 1 million before slowly coming down after temporary measures were imposed on the department. A seemingly endless number of medical-malpractice stories have also emanated from VA, cases that have involved the deaths of scores of veterans. Yet nobody gets fired. Worse, bonuses are given to failing executives.
The same can be said for VA’s new big brother, Obamacare. For years, veterans have felt the adverse effects of government-run health care — long wait times, paperwork nightmares, and limited access. Now those same symptoms are hitting all Americans. The failed rollout of HealthCare.gov is the most glaring example of this dysfunction. As with VA, nobody has been held accountable.
But there is hope in both cases. Legislation will soon be introduced that empowers VA managers to break the bureaucratic sclerosis and actually fire poor performers. This basic accountability can help transform the department’s dysfunctional culture and remind bureaucrats that they work to serve veterans. As for Obamacare, the public is feeling the pain — and waking up to the reality of what government-run health care really means. That righteous anger will manifest itself at the ballot box, the only real way to scrap that law.
Following the Ryan–Murray budget deal, “compromise” is the word du jour in Washington. And while compromise is necessary in representative government, it is not a synonym for good policy. The “deal” addresses neither debt reduction nor entitlement reforms. However, it does cut military retirement benefits — even for wounded warriors of Iraq and Afghanistan. Not only was this egregious cut unexpected, it also breaks faith with America’s veterans.
Nonetheless, selflessness should be their second resolution. As veterans, we are rightly outraged by the nature of these mindless military retirement cuts. However, we mustn’t embrace the parochial mindset of ordinary special-interest groups. We must not reflexively oppose reforms to military pay and benefits but should instead find constructive ways to wisely reform unsustainable spending and military benefits we can no longer afford. An age of austerity is upon us, and the Department of Defense will have to share in austerity measures.
Proposals for sensible reforms to military benefits (and scores of other DoD-budget items, such as acquisitions) abound, and veterans groups should support them. Otherwise, we risk having a well-compensated military that is too small and lacking the world-class technology, equipment, and training it needs to defend America and her interests. The Ryan–Murray deal saves $6 billion over ten years through military retirement cuts; if the Pentagon were to audit its own books accurately — which it has never done — it would find those savings, and much more. A Pentagon-audit bill, along with other DoD reforms, can be advanced in this Congress.
That said, DoD and VA reforms are small peanuts compared with the unsustainable growth of mandatory entitlement spending. Reforming entitlement programs is what’s really required to address America’s debt threat. Rhetorically, Republicans and Democrats, including President Obama of yesteryear, recognize the need to reform entitlements, both to make them sustainable for future generations and to address America’s long-term debt crisis.
But it takes courage to actually take on entrenched special interests and promote real spending reforms. That should be our final resolution. The Paul Ryan budget that passed the House multiple times in previous years — as opposed to the Ryan–Murray deal — is a sober and courageous attempt to address our growing debt, and in 2014 Congress should advance similar policies that encourage fiscal responsibility. Specifically, a balanced-budget amendment seems particularly well suited, politically and policy-wise, for the moment. If the president vetoes such proposals, so be it. But the efforts must continue.
The past remains the best indicator of future performance, so I’m not optimistic this president will see the light and promote sensible policies this year. However, with elections still a long way off in 2014 and 2016, it’s important for veterans — and all Americans — to keep fighting for the America we love. The price of the freedom we love is eternal vigilance; may we resolve to be vigilant in 2014.
— Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, a contributor to the Blaze, and an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan and Iraq and at Guantanamo Bay.