BIDLACK | Trump team denigrates expertise; shakeup at VA is a case in point

Author: Hal Bidlack - July 24, 2018 - Updated: July 23, 2018

Hal Bidlack
Hal Bidlack

I stood in a very deep hole a few years ago, when I was a staffer working veterans issues for Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. I had been given my very simple marching orders – make Colorado the best state for veterans – by the boss. Which is how I ended up in that hole. It was the excavation for one of the new buildings that make up the new U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital complex. It was a massive project and, as I said, a really big hole.

I thought of that hole recently upon reading a story in Colorado Politics that mentioned the new hospital and the ridiculous cost overruns therein (but that must await another column), as part of a story on a Trump administration housecleaning of career VA employees. When I was working for Senator Bennet, I regularly found myself in VA meetings, and I listened to VA officials, builders, sub-contractors, and other interested people discuss the hospital construction as well as other VA issues.

Most people likely think of the VA as a single monolithic entity, but in fact, it is actually three separate organizations under one flag. The medical care people make up the Veterans Health Administration, while the people who pay out the money make up the Veterans Benefits Administration. The smallest and least well-known division is the National Cemetery Administration that, well, you know from the name what they do. As a Senate staffer working issues for Colorado vets, I dealt with all three branches. Each had its own organizational culture and feel, but there is one thing I never did see in any VA organization – evil people.

The VA, like much of government, is overly complex. But within that structure I found amazing and hard-working people who care deeply for America’s veterans. Heck, about a third of the staff I worked with were vets themselves. I had various VA folks on speed dial and talked with them every day about the cases I was working. One high point was getting a military widow a back payment she was owed of $172,000. And it was the VA staff that made that payment possible. They didn’t fight me, rather they helped me every step of the way. I have tremendous respect for the career VA personnel across all three VA organizations. Mistakes happen, of course, but through error and not evil intent. On the medical side of things, while there have been horror stories, overall patient satisfaction and quality of care in VA facilities is at or above national averages. You don’t hear about that, because it’s rarely considered newsworthy to run a story entitled “Government agency does a good job.”

Which is why the Colorado Politics story noted above gave me pause. The report talks about Trump loyalists purging not just the political appointees from previous administrations, but also the core career non-political people who run the organization at the grass-roots levels. Not surprisingly, the Trump folks say they are just reforming and improving the agency. And certainly, presidents have the right to reshape executive branch agencies. But what makes this effort different, and thus elicits the term “purge” is the effort to remove and/or reassign people who’ve been working there hard for many years.

Now, given that politics tinges most D.C. actions these days, it’s possible partisanship is at play, but 12 Democratic senators took the unusual step of calling out the acting VA secretary, who argued that the people being purged were individuals “who served across multiple administrations” but now are told they must essentially pledge loyalty to Mr. Trump rather than the mission of the VA. The article goes on to note that this pattern of looking for perceived disloyalty to Mr. Trump has been seen elsewhere in the executive branch. The State Department pushed out quite a few career diplomats alleged to not be personally loyal enough to Mr. Trump, and the Department of Interior has seen similar loyalty tests and purges.

To be very clear – a president has the right to re-staff and rejigger the Executive Branch in his own image. But for most of our history, we’ve seen presidents appreciate the skills and knowledge that career civil servants gain through many years on the job. Mr. Trump and his people do not seem to appreciate the value of expertise – indeed, they seem to distain it. And there is a danger in that. When political appointees with little actual knowledge are put in charge, there are ramifications. We want and need experts, especially in places where knowledge is the primary bulwark against profoundly bad outcomes, such as screwed up veterans health care as well as, oh, I dunno, say, extraordinarily poor outcomes to summit meetings.

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.