New Leadership at VA Committees, But Likely Same Priorities

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., will take over as chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., will take over as chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The leadership of the congressional committees overseeing Veterans Affairs will be different in January, but lawmakers’ focus on improving access to health care for vets and strengthening employee accountability at the department likely will remain the same.

Tennessee Republican Rep. Phil Roe, a physician and an Army vet, will take over as chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, succeeding Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla. Miller, who shepherded the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act into law and focused many of his efforts as chairman on making it easier to fire bad apples. Miller is retiring at the end of 2016. Roe, who has served on the committee since 2009, mentioned several priorities on his website, including making sure the Choice Act is reauthorized, pursuing greater accountability for VA senior managers, and creating a better system for integrating vets’ electronic health records -- an issue that has bedeviled the VA and the Defense Department for years.

“I am excited by the opportunity to advance Republican solutions aimed at improving veterans’ care,” said Roe in a separate statement after his election to the chairman post. “There’s a lot of work to be done – from considering the Commission on Care recommendations and reauthorizing the Choice program to ensuring veterans have timely access to the benefits they’ve earned – and I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work.”

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Roe can be colorful -- and blunt. During a 2014 congressional hearing on the patient waiting lists at the VA’s scandal-plagued Phoenix medical facility, Roe had this to say to witness Dr. Thomas Lynch, VA assistant deputy undersecretary for health for clinical operations: “What I don't understand is, as a veteran, as a doctor, as a practitioner, how you can stand in a mirror and look at yourself in a mirror and shave in the morning and then not throw up knowing that you've got people out there … [who] can't get in,” National Journal reported at the time.

In 2015, he offered a provision to a major spending bill to ban performance awards for employees in VA’s Office of Construction and Facilities Management because of the botched building of a new facility outside of Denver. “How many doctors and nurses could have been hired with $1 billion that the VA’s Office of Construction & Facilities Management has set fire to?” Roe asked on the House floor at the time. “The answer is: a lot.”

Outgoing Chairman Miller said he was confident the committee “will continue to serve veterans by setting the standard for congressional legislative and oversight accomplishments” under Roe’s leadership.

It’s not yet clear who the committee’s top Democrat will be in the 115th Congress. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., is currently the ranking member, stepping up when Florida Democrat and then-Ranking Member Corrine Brown was indicted for conspiracy and fraud, and then lost her congressional primary in November. Takano has tried unsuccessfully to compromise with the panel’s Republicans on VA employee accountability measures, in part by limiting firing flexibilities in some bills to affect only employees engaged in activity that poses a direct threat to public health and safety. He has been a vocal advocate for due process for feds.

But Minnesota Democrat Tim Walz is also interested in the ranking member job. Walz, the only veteran on the committee’s Democratic side, has the support of several colleagues as well as vets’ groups including the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. IAVA did not mention Walz by name in its letter to House leadership but said the committee should “be led by veterans whenever possible,” especially given “so few veterans in the halls of Congress to shape the debate.” Walz is generally amiable during congressional hearings, but can ask tough, pointed questions of VA officials. In a November 2015 hearing, he took the department to task for withholding information from the press and restricting access to senior leaders.

The Minnesota Democrat has said that finding a compromise with Republicans on how to fire people who aren’t performing is a “realistic conversation” to have, and he supported the Choice Ac provision that made it easier to fire VA senior executives. He has also said he is “open” looking at changing the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act, which governs federal personnel regulations.

On the Senate, Republican Johnny Isakson of Georgia is expected to remain as chairman, while Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., will take over as ranking member, replacing Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal. Tester and Isakson, both longtime members of the committee, have a friendly and productive working relationship. Isakson, who served in the Georgia Air National Guard, unveiled sweeping legislation this past spring that would have reformed several aspects of how the VA does business, including hiring and firing. That bill – the Veterans First Act – had the support of many Democrats, but stalled in Congress this year, to the disappointment of VA Secretary Bob McDonald.

Tester sponsored the 2015 Wounded Warriors Federal Leave Act, signed into law by President Obama in November 2015, which gives 104 hours of leave immediately to first-year feds who are vets with a service-connected disability rating of at least 30 percent to attend medical appointments related to their disability.

The Disabled American Veterans said it was “encouraged” by the new leadership of the Veterans’ Affairs committees for the 115th Congress. “We will continue to work closely with both the House and the Senate to promote our critical legislative priorities to help injured and ill veterans lead high quality lives with dignity and respect,” said DAV Washington Headquarters Executive Director Garry Augustine in a Dec. 19 statement.

President-elect Donald Trump has not yet announced his nominee for VA secretary. But the names that have been floating around include: Pete Hegseth, former CEO of Concerned Veterans for America and Army National Guard vet; former Republican Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown; current VA Secretary Bob McDonald, who has the support of several vets’ groups and lawmakers; and Thad Allen, the former Coast Guard commandant who was widely praised for his leadership roles responding to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, and hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

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