SUPPORTERS OF the bill to raise the Veterans Administration to a Cabinet-level department say not to worry, the legislation is not the power play it seems. Their soothing and not entirely implausible argument is that the bill would increase the agency's visibility more than its power, thereby making it more accountable rather than less.
Now they are being given a chance to demonstrate their devotion to this principle of accountability. Opponents of the bill, and some who are not opposed, want to add a codicil subjecting the agency's benefits decisions to judicial review. Unlike the comparable decisions of, say, the Social Security Administration, the benefits determinations of the VA are not subject to such review now. A post-Civil War statute limiting the legal fees that can be paid basically bars disappointed veterans from hiring lawyers, and a Depression-era cost-cutting statute forbids most appeals to the courts anyway. The result is that the veterans' organizations provide most of the representation in veterans' benefit cases, and the agency's own appeals board provides the final level of review.
As you might expect, the organizations and the agency both like this arrangement. They say the all-in-the-family system works to the veteran's benefit and that lawyers, by turning it adversarial, would rip it both up and off. But some veterans' advocates feel otherwise. They note that if the system does work so well, the agency has nothing to fear. In fact, they say the system can be arbitrary and ask: What can possibly be more American than to allow a citizen to take his government to court?
In the past three Congresses the Senate has several times provided for judicial review, always with an eye to preserving the best features of the present system. The House Veterans' Affairs Committee has been the burial ground. Now the issue has returned in the context of the bill to make the VA a department. The House-passed bill, which lacks judicial review, is awaiting action in the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, where some members may propose the provision. Some veterans' groups and veterans' stalwarts on the Hill say they would rather have no bill than one with this provision. They want the clout of Cabinet status without the restraint. Who wouldn't?