Yesterday, the House passed a bill to reform medical services at the Department of Veterans Affairs on an unusual unanimous vote. Harry Reid indicated today that the Senate’s version of the VA bill, co-sponsored by Bernie Sanders and John McCain, will be fast-tracked and could come up for a vote in the next couple of days.
Which means that unlike every other scandal (both real and trumped-up) that the Obama administration has confronted, this time demagoguery and feigned outrage gave way to — brace yourself — actual problem-solving. How could such a thing have happened?
After all, Republicans have been allergic to passing legislation of any kind. This Congress is on pace to be the least productive in history, and John Boehner has said Congress “ought to be judged on how many laws that we repeal.”
And just today, Senate Republicans successfully filibustered a bill allowing students burdened by crushing debt to refinance their loans. So what was different about the VA that allowed for an actual reform effort to succeed (granting that it hasn’t quite succeeded yet)?
The explanation is that as scandals go, this one just isn’t actually built to give Republicans that much mileage — unless they are willing to refuse to be part of the solution. But here is an area where that is impossible for them.
Indeed, for Republicans, the opportunities for demagoguery on the VA scandal have turned out to be limited. Sure, there have been some over-the-top statements here and there, and we have seen some desk-pounding for the cameras at hearings. But there is a specific need that demands action — and veterans groups are paying close attention — which means blaming our Kenyan Muslim Socialist president can only go so far. Every member of Congress has to be ready to answer the question, “What are you doing to solve the problem?”, and “I’m holding Barack Obama’s feet to the fire!” isn’t an answer any constituent is going to accept.
Beyond this is the fact that here is an area where Republicans and Democrats have fundamentally the same goal: they both want to see veterans get good health care. There are limits to their agreement — Republicans would also like to privatize the VA to whatever degree they can, just as they’d like to privatize Medicare and Medicaid. And this bill starts down that road, by allowing veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA medical facility or who have been waiting for extended periods to take their VA coverage and get care at private providers. But unlike in previous controversies, both parties actually want to solve the problem.
And that meant that they could agree on some specifics. Republicans are supporting the hiring of more doctors and nurses to deal with the backlog of patients. And Democrats are supporting the provision allowing for private care, not because they think it’s the best thing in the long run if veterans go outside the VA health system (it isn’t), but because in the short run it looks like the only way to get people who’ve been on waiting lists the care they need.
Combine those two factors — limits on the ability to grandstand instead of addressing the problem, and a genuine desire to solve it — and you have a rare case in which bipartisan action is possible, even in 2014. If only it weren’t so unusual.