The Senate on Tuesday unanimously confirmed former Procter & Gamble chief Robert McDonald as secretary of the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs.
Tuesday’s vote represented a rare example of swift, bipartisan action by the Senate to address pressing problems.
President Obama nominated McDonald on June 30, and the Senate Veterans Affairs panel gave him a warm reception during his confirmation hearing last week.
Obama applauded the Senate’s “overwhelming, bipartisan confirmation” of McDonald.
“As a country, we have a solemn duty to serve our veterans as well as they have served us,” the president said in a statement. “I know Bob will help us honor that commitment and make sure every veteran gets the care they deserve, the benefits they’ve earned, and the chance to pursue the American Dream they’ve risked so much to protect.”
McDonald will replace acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson, who has led the department since Obama accepted the resignation of VA chief Eric K. Shinseki in May, amid reports of falsified scheduling records and extensive treatment delays at VA medical centers.
During his confirmation hearing, McDonald promised to transform the VA and correct its systematic failures.
“I desperately want this job, because I think I can make a difference,” he said.
Numerous official reports in recent months have detailed the VA’s troubles, documenting manipulation of scheduling and benefits records, retaliation against whistleblowers and a general lack of accountability. In one of the reports, White House adviser Rob Nabors described the VA culture as “corrosive.”
The agency is also dealing with a shortage of medical staff and a rapidly growing demand for its services from aging Vietnam veterans and troops who have recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The seriousness of the moment demands urgent action,” McDonald said during his confirmation hearing. “The VA is in crisis. The veterans are in need. There is a lot of work to do to transform the department, and it will not be easy, but it is essential and can be achieved.”
McDonald said he would work to improve communications within the sprawling VA, which is the second-largest department in the federal government. He also said he would travel extensively to field offices and exchange cellphone numbers with members of the congressional committees that oversee the agency.
Members of both parties have praised McDonald’s leadership credentials and his military experience. He graduated in the top 2 percent of his class at West Point and served as an Army paratrooper for five years before taking an entry-level job at P&G and moving up the company’s ranks.
Floor speeches highlighted the bipartisanship Tuesday.
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) said on the floor that McDonald will “bring the tools of a CEO in a private corporation to the VA, a huge bureaucracy which needs significant improvement in accountability and management.”
Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said during a floor speech, “This is the type of leader we need at the VA at this crucial time.”
Veterans groups also expressed support for McDonald. American Legion national commander Daniel Dellinger said he is confident McDonald will “apply his experience leading big, complex business operations to the Department of Veterans Affairs, a complex operation that desperately needs a system-wide overhaul.”
McDonald resigned from P&G amid criticism from investors and former executives that he was moving too slowly to change the direction of the company’s then-dwindling stock price with price reductions, development of new products and cost-cutting, according to a Washington Post profile.
Congress this week is expected to pass legislation to help VA address the root causes of its recent scandal.
The bill would give VA secretary greater authority to fire senior executives for performance problems and misconduct, in addition to providing billions of dollars for adding staff.
It also would allow veterans to seek care outside the agency’s medical network when they wait more than 30 days for an appointment or live more than 40 miles from the nearest VA facility.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said Tuesday that McDonald will need to use the expected firing authority to succeed at his job.
“McDonald will need to take swift and decisive action to discipline employees responsible for mismanagement, negligence and corruption that harms veterans while taking bold steps to replace the department’s culture of complacency with a climate of accountability,” Miller said in a statement.
McDonald continues a long line of VA secretaries who were confirmed unanimously by the Senate. Every nominee since the job became a Cabinet-level position in 1989 has been approved with no opposing votes.
Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.