As veterans wait, bungling bureaucrats cash in

Published May 6, 2007

If you would like a job where you can count on a fat bonus regardless of how badly you bollixed things, then you might think about applying to the Veterans Affairs Department. The agency has done a categorically poor job caring for disabled veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, with long delays in benefits and substandard living quarters and outpatient care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, yet it has been doling out rich rewards to its own, ostensibly for work well done.

Bonuses of up to $33, 000 were granted top officials in the department. A deputy undersecretary for benefits received $33, 000, even though injured veterans have had to wait on average 177 days to receive benefits. The backlogged benefits system has been called unacceptable by Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson.

Budget officials at the department were equally rewarded despite the almost comical job the department did in undercalculating its budgetary needs. In July 2005, the VA suddenly discovered that it was facing a billion-dollar shortfall and had to run to Congress for more funding. The department had failed to adequately account for injured American soldiers coming off the world's battlefields - a wholly predictable expense.

According to the Government Accountability Office, the VA used misleading accounting methods to show ersatz savings in its budget. It was a political maneuver designed to allow President Bush to appear to be holding the line on federal spending, even as the costs of the war in Iraq were skyrocketing. Nicholson, the former chair of the Republican National Committee, apparently was more concerned about playing politics than preparing for the health care needs of injured troops. Now his department is using $3.8-million of its limited resources to reward those who went along.

Democratic leaders in Congress are calling for hearings on the bonuses, the richest in the federal government. When a department's priority is enriching its bungling bureaucrats while veterans have to wait for care, maybe someone else needs to be setting the priorities.