July 28

As Congress approaches the August recess, something incredible may be about to happen. A piece of reform legislation addressing a problem could actually pass both houses of Congress and be signed into law. I’m not talking about immigration (a bill there is possible too, though I wouldn’t bet your life savings on it), but about the problems at the Veterans Health Administration.

House and Senate negotiators will be announcing today that they have reached a compromise bill, one that is likely to pass and President Obama will certainly sign. This is very good news, but it’s the exception that proves the rule on congressional inaction. The fact that it’s this hard to get a piece of reform legislation that should have been able to be accomplished in a couple of days shows just how impossible the GOP has made governing.

Take a look at what characterizes the VA issue. First, there was a dramatic and troubling scandal. Second, the scandal involved victims that everyone in both parties wants to be seen supporting. Third, the way to fix the problem, at least in the short term, was fairly obvious. Fourth, that solution involved at most some mild ideological discomfort for both parties, but nothing they couldn’t tolerate. Finally and most importantly, addressing the problem involved zero political cost to either party.

How often does an issue like that come around? Once or twice a decade? But that, apparently, is what’s required to actually pass meaningful legislation to get government functioning properly.

Among other things, the compromise will give veterans who are far from VA facilities a card allowing them to get reimbursed for private health care; allocate money to hire more doctors and nurses; and eliminate the incentives within the Veterans Health Service for cheating or covering up long wait times. All of these provisions are what everyone understood was necessary almost as soon as the scandal broke.

While Republicans talk a lot about inefficiency and incompetence in Washington, they also say that government should do a few things and do them well. But they haven’t displayed much interest in the second half of that formulation, because it isn’t really in their political interest. If government functions well, even in a limited way, it undermines their fundamental case. A blundering government is the best argument to elect Republicans, especially when there’s a Democrat in the White House.

Nevertheless, more mainstream Republicans have always been willing to offer some measure of cooperation in making things work the way they’re supposed to. But the current era has been shaped by the GOP’s decision in 2009 — before the emergence of the Tea Party, mind you — to oppose anything and everything President Obama might want to do. That ended up including both big liberal initiatives like the Affordable Care Act and also the more mundane and ongoing process of making the trains run on time. When you added in the political force of a wave of Tea Partiers elected in 2010 and 2012 whose antipathy to government is so overwhelming that they were willing to shut it down, passing reform legislation that didn’t involve a headline-grabbing scandal became all but impossible.

Unfortunately, that won’t change for the next two years at least. As long as the president is a Democrat, it will take something extraordinary like the VA scandal — where true compromise isn’t even necessary, because there’s no downside for anyone — to get Republicans to go along with any effort to fix problems and govern responsibly. In this sense, the Congressional response to the VA scandal reveals just how bad things have been lately.