IN JULY, House Republicans were preparing to set aside the budget caps long enough to score some political points at the administration's expense by appropriating significantly more for veterans' health care than the president had prudently requested. Suddenly, Vice President Gore appeared on television to announce on behalf of the administration and his own presidential ambitions that the president's budget was being revised; an extra $1 billion had been found.

Mr. Gore was one-upped in turn by the appropriators; they added $1.7 billion to the account. Not a word about the fact that, far from being underfunded, the veterans' health care system is widely regarded as being heavily overbuilt. No matter, either, that the add-on for veterans threatened for a while to seriously squeeze competing programs, including the principal forms of housing assistance to the poor.

The July one-upmanship was part of a bidding war for votes that, with veterans' programs as with agriculture and other familiar parts of the budget, will only intensify as the country makes the turn into election year. Texas Gov. George W. Bush and his leading rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Sen. John McCain, marked Veterans Day with speeches. "Soldiers once ordered by their government to stand in the line of fire should not now be ordered to stand in line at the nearest bureaucracy with hat in hand" for health care, the governor declared. "My great embarrassment as an American is that we're not providing those World War II veterans with health care benefits that we promised them," the senator said from several states away. "Don't be [fooled] by someone saying the money isn't there."

There is no question that the country has the obligation to make veterans whole on their return or retirement from service, and to provide for the survivors of those who do not return. There is no question, either, that the health care system has a problem, but not the one most often cited at budget time or on the campaign trail.

The system needs less to be expanded than to be rationalized. The number of veterans is declining. The government maintains too many facilities, often of the wrong kind and in the wrong places. Some large veterans hospitals are underused, understaffed and in communities with many more hospital beds than they need. The veterans' system needs to be better integrated with the health care system as a whole, which in some cases would mean closing veterans' facilities or opening them to non-veterans.

But the very mention of most such steps meets instant resistance from veterans' groups and their champions in Congress, who profess to see in them an abandonment of the country's commitment to veterans and even a turning away from national defense. So we have bidding wars instead.