The Veterans Administration writes a lot of checks. In addition to the medical care it dispenses at its hospitals, it distributes about $15 billion a year in benefits to more than 4 million disabled and low-income veterans and survivors. But it is different from other check-writing agencies, where decisions to award or not, and how much, can be appealed to the federal courts. The VA's cannot.
In the last three Congresses, bills to put the VA on the same footing as the other agencies -- to subject its decisions, too, to judicial review -- passed the Senate but died in the House. The Senate has acted again, and a House bill now has more than 220 sponsors from both parties. The House Veterans' Affairs Committee is holding hearings. Its senior members, Chairman G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery and ranking Republican John Paul Hammerschmidt, are both opposed, as is the VA. Most of the veterans organizations are on record as favoring judicial review; several have nevertheless testified against this bill.
Opponents say that the present system already works pretty well and that the bill would sour it. Veterans seeking help apply to regional offices; the disappointed can turn to a Board of Veterans Appeals. Through a limit on fees that can be paid, the law seeks to keep applicants from hiring lawyers. Instead, the veterans organizations all have service officers to take members through the process for free. The agency is also required by regulation to give applicants the benefit of reasonable doubt. Critics say that lawyers would disturb this supportive system, turn it adversarial, rip it off and burden the courts, all for little gain. They argue that the courts would also produce an unevenness of judgment and that judges have no special expertise in the difficult medical questions typically involved.
Those who favor the bill say that if the system were working so well, there would be few appeals. The standard of review is narrow, they say: the courts would have to defer to the VA except where it could be shown to have acted arbitrarily. The rules as to reasonable doubt would be preserved and, in fact, enshrined in statute, and the fees lawyers could charge would still be limited. There is a fair amount of unevenness in the system even now, they add.
We find the advocates' reasons telling. But there is a more important reason for allowing access to the courts. The courts exist in part precisely to settle disputes between citizens and the executive branch. No agency should be the judge of its own actions.