So Eric Shinseki, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veteran’s Affairs, has resigned, and…so what? What will that change? Next to nothing substantial will change at the VA, and nothing will prevent the VA fiasco from becoming the fate of all of us under Obamacare–until the real boss, the 800-pound gorilla that we don’t speak of, not only resigns, but is removed permanently without replacement.
A random survey of two dozen recent articles on the VA in the New York Times yields not a single hit on the word ‘union’. Kimberly Strassel of the Wall Street Journal makes up for the deficit with 28 mentions in a single column (‘Big Labor’s VA Choke Hold, Potomac Watch, March 30’).
The unconscionable and unconsititutional power and privileges of the public employee unions is the single most significant driver of the crisis at the VA, as it is with state and county budgets from New Jersey to California. Two-thirds of the VA’s 300,000+ employees are members of the National Federation of Federal Empoyees, the American Federation of Government Employees International Union, and other unions. In 2012, 258 of them actually worked full-time only for the union, while being paid full salary and benefits by the VA–that is, by you and me the taxpayer. Of those, 17 earned between $100K and $132K; and it’s a safe bet that their benefits and pensions are at least twice as generous as those received by anyone earning comparable salaries in the private sector.
We don’t begrudge anyone earning $100K, $1 million, or even $10 million if it is earned honestly and paid for voluntarily by informed customers or clients who are free to take their business elsewhere. Doctors, nurses, teachers, and even union professionals should be paid seven figures if the consensus of their peers and those who write their own checks is that they merit it. But the minute someone’s haul becomes an ironclad privilege subject to no accountability beyond pleasing an equally unaccountable cabal of cronies, corruption multiplies until the inevitable results – long waiting times, neglectful care, needless deaths – become too glaring to ignore. Such is the nature of the public employee unions’ claim on taxpayer dollars irrespective of performance today.
More money is not going to solve the problem. The VA’s budget has tripled in the past 13 years, while the number of veterans served is either flat or has increased a maximum of 30%. It’s how the money gets spent, by whom, and under what incentives and constraints that counts.
The current ratio of ‘in-house’ to ‘outsourced’ care shoud be inverted, such that 90+% of the dollars spent by the VA pay for service delivered outside of the agency’s facilities and employee network. There is no reason why the U.S. government itself has to directly run 152 hospitals and be the primary care provider for veterans, any more than it has to be the monopoly manufacturer of furniture, appliances, or cell phones for them. Uncle Sam contracts out development of weapons of war and aircraft to hundreds of for-profit companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Glock Ges.m.b.H. As a middleman manager of taxpayer resources, it can set up a voucher system that enables veterans to purchase health insurance on the private market and to pay for catastrophic care provided by Casa Colina, the Kessler Rehabilitation Center, Johns Hopkins, and others. Veterans who fought for our freedom should not be captives of any single monopolist, whether the government, a union, or a political party (imagine the outcry if this scandal had broken under a Republican administration).
General Shinseki’s ouster is not justified based on the performance of a system beyond his control, unless he is a cheerleader for the status quo. There is little Shinseki or anyone else could or will be able to do about the agency’s dysfunction until Congress, with the support of the American people, asserts its authority over the agency’s business and revokes all privileges that create the moral hazard of giving the interests of unionized employees preference over those of the veterans they obstensibly serve.
But that’s just an extremist, right-wing Republican view, right? Perhaps. Or perhaps it’s just a measure of how far we have come, or fallen, since before the current hostage crisis became business as usual. Consider these icons of right-wing extremism and what they had to say yesteryear:
New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia: “The right to strike against the government is not and cannot be recognized.”
AFL-CIO president George Meany: “It is impossible to collectively bargain with the government.”
A.F.L.-C.I.O. Executive Council’s 1959 advice: “In terms of accepted collective bargaining procedures, government workers have no right beyond the authority to petition Congress — a right available to every citizen.”
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “Meticulous attention should be paid to the special relations and obligations of public servants to the public itself and to the Government. The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”
FDR again: “a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable.”
Colby Buzzell, an Iraq war veteran writing in the New York Times, reminds us that the VA motto, taken from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, reads: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.”
How we accomplish that requires respect for economic principles, with a bias toward the free market that is no small part of what our veterans were defending when they served.