THE SENATE Governmental Affairs Committee held a hearing the other day on the sycophantic proposal to turn the Veterans Administration into a Department of Veterans Affairs. The witness list suggests what is already wrong with this agency. The veterans' groups, the present and two former veterans' administrators and senior members of the congressional veterans' committees were the ones to testify -- all in favor, of course. No one came from the world outside.
The veterans' programs, even more than others in this compartmentalized city, thrive in their own petri dish. The overseers and beneficiaries are on the same side, have mutual interests, trade forms of support. Benefits flow in one direction, votes the other. Occasional fear was expressed at the hearing that if the agency were elevated to Cabinet rank, it might become politicized. God forbid, but what do they call what it is now?
The purpose of moving the VA up in the hierarchy is to give the veterans' groups a trophy and the agency a stronger castle from which to fend off the Office of Management and Budget and budget cuts. The gloss is, of course, less crass. The idea comes wrapped half in the flag and half in need. A place at the Cabinet table would be recognition of the sacrifices veterans have made and a way -- no more -- to make sure they are not neglected, that their (undisputed) problems are brought swiftly and directly to the president.
But the obvious question for the committee is, why just veterans? If this is an exercise in something other than dreary politics, if the Balkanization of government is such a good idea, what about other worthy groups? What about the Indians? No group of Americans has been more persecuted, is more downtrodden; none has a greater historical claim to a seat at the president's right hand. But all that the Indians have is a bureau, and in an Interior Department that also houses interests hostile to theirs.
So plainly there should be a Department of Native American Affairs. You can take it from there. The elderly have to share the Department of Health and Human Services with all kinds of other people, some of whom are even young. Not fair. The Women's Bureau is tucked away in the Labor Department. There are, it is said, some 28 million veterans in America, but there are about 126 million women. Why shouldn't they have their own department? Why shouldn't children?
What Congress could much more sensibly do is the opposite of what has been proposed. It could merge the VA into HHS. That is not to denigrate the VA's true mission. No one disputes that the government has a lasting obligation to wounded veterans and their families and to survivors of the dead, nor that it has a briefer duty to make returning veterans whole. But the VA's extensive health and benefit programs go beyond that and set a double standard in society.
Merger would militate against this, and help create a context in which -- other than for service-connected disabilities -- long-term health and benefit programs for veterans and nonveterans would be run by the same rules. The veterans would have a secretary in the Cabinet; they'd just have to share him. The government would be organized by function rather than by constituency or interest group. Whatever in the world could be wrong with that.