Coburn’s Last Act Was Blocking a VA Suicide Prevention Bill
Policy + Politics

Coburn’s Last Act Was Blocking a VA Suicide Prevention Bill

Sen. Tom Coburn’s seemingly churlish behavior Monday night didn’t play well when he single-handedly blocked passage of a bill to create a Veterans Affairs Department program to combat rampant suicide among military veterans – a crisis that is currently averaging about 20 deaths a day.

The Senate was ready to rush the House-passed measure through on unanimous consent until “Doctor No” as he is known by his colleagues objected, saying that the VA already has programs addressing the suicide problem and that the legislation would be a waste of $22 million over the coming five years.

Related: Obama Tells Veterans Better Mental Health Care on the Way

“Congress should hold VA bureaucrats accountable for their failing programs and substandard medical care instead of passing legislation that will do little to solve the tragic challenge of veteran suicide,” said Coburn, one of the chamber’s most prominent deficit hawks and a long-time watchdog against wasteful government spending.  “Our military heroes deserve more than false promises. It is dishonest for Congress to pretend that passing yet another bill will finally solve the challenges plaguing the VA.”

Coburn was trying to make a larger point – that wasteful duplications within the federal government drain billions of dollars annually from the federal coffers, and that lawmakers had to draw the line somewhere. The Government Accountability Office regularly highlights costly examples of government agencies tripping over one another to do the same job –whether it’s overseeing catfish production, encouraging the development of renewable energy, promoting U.S. exports, or simply hiring foreign language instructors.

Related: The VA Scandals: What You Never Knew

If Coburn hadn’t stood up and objected in what was likely his last major speech on the Senate floor before he retires, the Senate would have overwhelmingly passed the bill  last night and given veterans and their advocates a Christmas present of sorts before Congress adjourned for the rest of  the year.

But Coburn insisted that he had “done his homework,” and that the proposed new program to recruit more psychiatrists, encourage community-based treatment programs for veterans and direct the VA secretary to order annual evaluations of mental health and suicide prevention programs was a waste of money because the department already had the authority or power to do much of that.

The Oklahoma Republican may have been right on many of his points, but the optics of one retiring lawmaker blocking passage of a relatively minor spending bill for veterans – $4 million a year for five years is a drop in the bucket in a $3.8 trillion annual budget – were all wrong.

Suicide has become the scourge of the military and something dramatic needs to be done about it. More than half of the 2.6 million veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are struggling with physical or mental health problems that often lead to debilitating depression – and suicide. By the end of December, an estimated 1,800 military veterans will have taken their own lives in 2014, according to the advocacy group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans. This troubling phenomenon has greatly added to the challenges of the scandal ridden Veterans Affairs Department.

After the disclosure by CNN that at least 40 veterans died while waiting long periods of time for appointments at the Phoenix Veterans Health Administration facilities, irate lawmakers rushed to highlight the crisis and press for reforms.

Related: Cheating, Lying and Fraud—Will Restructuring Save the Scandal-Plagued VA?

Congress this summer approved a $17 billion long term bill aimed at cleaning up the scandal by granting the new VA secretary broad authority to fire and demote senior executives, greatly expand the medical staff, build or lease new facilities and allow veterans, if necessary, to seek private medical treatment if they can’t get into a VA facility in a reasonable time. Just three senators voted against the bill – including Coburn who argued that it was too costly.

The VA’s overall budget totaled $153.8 billion in fiscal 2014, including mandatory and discretionary spending. The administration sought an additional $10 billion for the coming fiscal year or a 7 percent increase in overall spending.

Veterans groups and their advocates on Capitol Hill viewed legislation to greatly improve programs for attempting to reduce the tragic rate of suicides as important companion piece.  “We are losing too many of our brothers and sisters nationwide,” Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and CEO of the Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans group, recently told Business Insider.

Related: Ft. Hood Fallout: Mental Screening for Military Recruits

Moreover, many members of Congress – including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – have lost family members or friends through suicide and were determined to do something more to address the problem. Reid, whose father committed suicide, made a personal plea on the Senate floor last night for Coburn to relent and allow the legislation to go through. “I know first-hand the heartbreak caused by the needless, preventable death of a loved one,” he said.

But Coburn refused to back down.  And during an emotional speech on the floor, he said he had struggled with the decision and had prayed over it – but couldn’t justify going along with the bill.

Related: America’s Vets: More Jobs, More Help, More Suicides  

“I don’t think this bill would do the first thing to change what’s happening,” he said.

The reaction was not surprising: Some lawmakers shook their heads, while some in the media called Colburn “Scrooge.” And Rieckhoff, the head of the veterans group, angrily told reporters, “This is why people hate Washington.”

In politics, as in life, it’s important to carefully pick your battles – especially when there is so much to choose from in the ongoing war against government waste, fraud and abuse. In this case, Coburn probably made the wrong choice. He will be retiring from the Senate after a decade on an extraordinarily sour note – and probably all for naught.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CONN) said last night that absent some last-minute legislative miracle, he would reintroduce the bill next year in the new Republican controlled Congress – and it will probably pass.

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