- - Thursday, May 22, 2014

Retired Army Gen. Eric Shinseki has been secretary of Veterans Affairs throughout the entire Obama administration. During that time, the VA’s budget has increased by almost 80 percent, the largest budget increase given to any Cabinet agency.

And yet, here we are with a massive VA scandal consuming the administration. The core accusations involve paperwork and electronic data falsified to hide secret waiting lists, on which veterans languished until many of them died waiting for medical treatment. It’s not a budget problem. It’s a leadership problem, very much including Secretary Shinseki and his boss, President Barack Obama.

The VA system was under pressure from Secretary Shinseki to dramatically reduce wait times for treatment. At a growing list of hospitals and clinics, this evidently was done by doctoring paperwork to conceal the waiting lists and make treatment statistics look better. It’s a systemic problem from coast to coast, not the terrible work of a few administrators at a single hospital.

The VA had big problems before Shinseki and Obama came along. In fact, Obama campaigned on reform in 2008. There is no other way to describe events since 2009 than to say his campaign promises were forgotten as soon as he got into office. He hadn’t even had a meeting with Secretary Shinseki in two years.

When things go wrong on the scale of this scandal, leadership needs to accept responsibility and step aside. But nobody ever gets fired in the Obama administration because of Obama’s purely political calculation that taking such action would keep a scandal alive, hand a victory to his Republican opponents, and make it harder for him to change the subject.

There were still gasps of astonishment when President Obama gave a press conference Wednesday and announced Shinseki would stay at his post for as long as he wants to remain. The president went on to repeat all of the talking points from Shinseki’s last press conference … including the citation of statistics from the VA system about how much it has supposedly improved, when the entire subject of this scandal is falsified statistics!

It’s not just Republicans who think Shinseki needs to go. Democratic Rep. David Scott from Georgia was furious after President Obama’s passive statement on the scandal. He said of Secretary Shinseki: “I respect his sacrifice, I respect what he did, but it’s under his watch that we are in this situation. Mr. President, we need urgency!”

Part of the problem is that Shinseki doesn’t look “madder than hell” about the scandal, and neither does Obama, even though both claim to be enraged. But this is about more than just appearances. It’s absurd to retain the same leadership that presided over this crisis. The VA needs top-down reform, a high-pressure house cleaning. Instead, President Obama basically told Shinseki to investigate himself, and told everyone else to wait for some report to be issued in a month or two, before drawing any conclusions.

Rep. Scott is right to call for respect to Secretary Shinseki’s honorable military service. He got half his foot blown off in Vietnam. But if he remains in charge of the Department of Veterans Affairs, we’re going to get more spin and damage control from this Administration, not real change.

That won’t entirely be Shinseki’s fault — he’s just following the lead set by President Obama, who doesn’t think he should be held responsible for anything, and keeps claiming he doesn’t know what his administration has been doing until he reads about it in the newspapers. Obama’s not going anywhere for another year and a half, but Secretary Shinseki has to leave now. For those reasons, Secretary Eric Shinseki, you are the Bully Of The Week.

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