In Tuesday's column by Mary McGrory, Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) was identified as chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. He is the ranking minority member on the panel; Sen. Frank H. Murkowski (R-Alaska) is chairman.
Vietnam veterans have lost another battle in their continuing war with the Veterans Administration.
Last week, the House Veterans' Affairs Committee once again voted down a bill to make it possible for veterans to take their claims to court.
"The VA," sighed Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), sponsor of a bill that he hoped would accommodate the objections of the VA and its allies in the major veterans' organizations, "is a tough adversary."
The VA can go to the law against veterans whom it accuses of receiving undeserved benefits. But for 50 years, veterans have been unable to seek judicial review of claim awards they consider inadequate. The ban was instituted during the Depression, when, of course, there was no money for anything.
The Senate has voted unanimously for judicial review no less than five times. The cause was championed by Sen. Gary Hart (D-Col.) and pushed by Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), who is chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. During Jimmy Carter's presidency, the VA came out in favor of judicial review.
But the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, which functions in a monolithic manner under the genial, iron chairmanship of Rep. G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery (D-Miss.), has always closed ranks against any change in the "buddy system" now in effect.
The House committee is known to its detractors as one leg in the so-called "Iron Triangle," the other legs being the old-line veterans organizations and the VA.
It was considered something of a triumph that Edwards' substitute got 12 votes when the committee was writing the legislation.
Edwards complained that the VA fought his bill with ham-handed methods. The agency wrote a letter to the major veterans organizations on June 5, threatening to withdraw the goodies it now confers on them if they failed to take the VA side in the argument.
It is the custom for the VA to give free office space and telephone service to representatives of the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Disabled Veterans Association who represent veterans bringing claims against the VA.
Any alteration in the cozy procedure, Montgomery said disapprovingly, "would change it from advocate to adversary."
The Vietnam Veterans Association, the newest and puniest of these groups, receives no such largesse. They are regarded by the VA and the old-line outfits as disturbers of the peace. Not only are its members unclubbable, showing a lamentable lack of enthusiasm for flag-waving fish-fries and other socially acceptable recreation, they also have disrupted the regular order with unsettling and exotic complaints, such as Agent Orange symptoms and manifestations of something unique to the country's most unpopular war, the delayed stress syndrome.
Demoralized by the cold shoulder they have received from the agency that is supposed to help them, 80 percent of the claimants who sought relief from the Board of Veterans Appeal, a quasi-independent board, have abandoned their requests for reconsideration.
Edwards believed that he had met all the objections of the vested interests in the case with a bill that he called "major, enormous." The limit of $10 in attorneys' fees in veterans' cases, which was imposed during the Civil War, would be retained. Attorneys' fees for litigation would be fixed by the court. The compensation the veteran might win in a court procedure would still be determined by the VA.
Rep. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), a Vietnam-era veteran, pointed out that veterans deserve a day in court as much as do illegal aliens, Social Security pensioners and prisoners, all of whom are permitted to go to law.
It is perhaps the memory of the Social Security pensioners, thousands of whom had their disability questioned under a Draconian review begun by the Reagan administration that stiffens Republican spines in the present situation. Ninety percent of the challenged claimants got their money back in court.
Meanwhile, the committee voted 20 to 12 to keep the status quo -- under which, as Edwards says, the VA is "judge, jury and appeals court."
Since Edwards' reform would not apply retroactively, few Vietnam veterans would benefit from it. But future veterans would. As the administration gears up for another unpopular jungle conflict that could eventually involve GIs, Congress really ought to see about making sure they are treated like first-class citizens when they come home.