Secretary of Veterans Affairs nominee Denis McDonough speaks during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Jan. 27.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs nominee Denis McDonough speaks during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs on Capitol Hill, Wednesday, Jan. 27. Sarah Silbiger/Pool via AP

Biden's VA Pick Says He Can 'Unstick Problems' Within the Bureaucracy

Denis McDonough pledges to continue the status quo on private sector health care and provide more resources for VA employees.

President Biden’s pick to lead the Veterans Affairs Department promised more resources for employees, but also to hold the workforce accountable at a hearing that indicated he is heading for easy confirmation. 

Denis McDonough, who previously served as President Obama’s chief of staff, easily dealt with questions from members of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, with senators in both parties praising both his experience and his responses. The secretary-designate leaned heavily on his experience in government and as a manager, saying his depth of understanding of the bureaucracy and its inner workings would well suit him to lead the federal government’s second-largest agency. 

“As a former White House chief of staff, I bring a deep and extensive knowledge of government,” McDonough said. “I understand how to untangle and solve large, complex challenges, both across and within large agencies.”

McDonough treaded a delicate line on the issue of access to private sector health care for veterans, acknowledging the role of “community care” while pledging to ensure adequate resources for VA’s own facilities. He promised his policies and those of the Biden administration would never interfere with a decision made between a veteran and a provider on where to receive care. The 2018 Mission Act, passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and signed into law by President Trump, expanded veterans’ access to private care on the government’s dime. 

“Community care will continue to be a key part of how the department cares for our veterans,” McDonough said. “Full stop.” He added he does not support privatization of VA and the department must improve its ability to reimburse community partners in a timely fashion and to expand its “vibrant network” of private sector partners. 

VA is in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, a topic sure to consume much of McDonugh’s focus once confirmed as secretary. Biden has retained Richard Stone, a holdover from the Trump administration, to at least temporarily lead the Veterans Health Administration. VA has so far administered at least one vaccine dose to 626,000 individuals, including 230,000 employees, and McDonough told the committee he would “demand a seat at the table” within the administration to ensure the department receives an adequate distribution going forward. He vowed to “review whether performance to date” on VA’s coronavirus response has been adequate and to make any improvements necessary for both veterans and the department’s employees. 

“We have to be serious about communicating clearly with the workforce and ensure the workforce has access to vaccination and protection,” McDonough said, adding he will ensure employees have the “materials that they'll need to do their jobs effectively.” VA employees have said since the outset of the pandemic they have not had adequate personal protective equipment, sick leave, staffing or premium pay. 

McDonough also highlighted a controversial law Congress passed that made it easier to fire employees, saying the department will never again fail to hold malfeasant workers accountable. The law has faced rebukes from lawmakers, federal courts and the Federal Labor Relations Authority. Still, McDonough said he will be a “partner” with the 400,000-person workforce. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, noted that McDonough privately committed to working with VA’s employee unions, such as the American Federation of Government Employees. 

“I look forward to being a true partner with the men and women of the VA—dedicated, highly-skilled professionals, many veterans themselves, veterans serving veterans—who deserve our profound respect and support,” McDonough said. He vowed to address the 40,000 vacancies across VA by getting “more aggressive” in using special recruiting and hiring mechanisms Congress has authorized. 

Several senators praised McDonough’s executive branch experience, saying it would serve him well in his new role. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said the likely future secretary’s “knowledge of the bureaucracy is exactly what we need,” while Sen. Amy Klobuchar said McDonough is an “adept manager who understands how to tackle complex challenges throughout our government.” 

McDonough would be a rare VA secretary without military experience, which he brushed aside in noting he is “not a gunnery sergeant, but I am a fighter and I am relentless.” He added he understands not just how government works, but how to identify when it does not. 

“I can unstick problems inside agencies and across agencies and, especially in an agency as large as VA, that’s an important skill,” he said. 

Along with the pandemic, McDonough said he would work immediately to address sexual harassment within VA and to quickly eliminate the backlog of veterans benefits cases that built up over the last year due to closures. 

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., closed the hearing by committing to vote for McDonough and asking his Republican colleagues to do the same.