In Obama’s White House, the Buck Stops Nowhere

In Obama’s White House, the Buck Stops Nowhere

REUTERS/Larry Downing

What does it take to get fired from a job in the Barack Obama administration?

Only in this White House could a Cabinet Secretary get not just one but two public presidential statements of confidence as internal documents emerge showing that an agency knew about fraud, and left the problem to such an extent that people died while waiting for medical care.

This administration has long had trouble holding itself accountable for its failures, perhaps especially for the more spectacular disasters. When Health and Human Services spent $400 million and took three years to build a web portal for the Affordable Care Act – a technological feat that insurers have managed to accomplish a decade or more ago with far fewer resources – HHS under the direction of Secretary Kathleen Sebelius delivered a bug-ridden flop that still doesn’t meet its original specifications.

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Despite her failure to oversee the Obama administration’s central domestic policy achievement and to know that it would not be ready by its launch date, neither Sebelius nor anyone else lost their job over the debacle. Sebelius retired last month after more than five years on the job.

At least in that failure, no one died. When the State Department ignored months of warnings about the vulnerability of its consulate in Benghazi to terrorist attacks, as well as an escalating string of attacks on Western interests in the eastern Libyan city, four Americans died in the assault that took place on the anniversary of 9/11.

For reasons that are still unexplained, neither the State Department nor the Department of Defense were prepared to respond to an attack on an obvious date in a location where the now-murdered ambassador had repeatedly requested more security – and whose requests were repeatedly denied by State Department officials. Even though four Americans lost their lives during an hours-long attack with no assistance from supposedly unprepared US forces, including the first ambassador killed in the line of duty since the Jimmy Carter administration, not a single person in the State or Defense Departments lost their jobs, or even a single paycheck.

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Now we have a scandal in which at least forty veterans have allegedly died while waiting for medical care in one VA facility in Phoenix, which hid their long wait times by falsifying records. Whistleblowers have come forward in seven more locations alleging the same kind of wait list fraud. Even though the Inspector General of the Department of Veteran Affairs has been probing these problems for months, the White House tried claiming last week that President Obama only found out about them through news reports over the whistleblower allegations, the same way Obama supposedly found out about the IRS targeting of his political opponents.

On Wednesday, Obama had plenty of opportunity to demonstrate leadership in the face of this expanding scandal. He called VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who has served in that role since January 2009, to the White House for an unusual face-to-face meeting. The last such meeting took place in July 2012, not exactly a high level of presidential engagement on Veterans Affairs.

At the same time, the press office hastily scheduled a press conference for the President that would start 45 minutes after Shinseki arrived. Given the details revealed over the previous week, including a memo that warned VA headquarters of wait-list fraud in 2010, the stage was set perfectly for Obama to act as a competent executive and dole out consequences for tragic failure.

Related: Obama Sticks to Scandal Playbook in VA Mess

Instead, Obama put the man who had presided over five years of ineffective leadership in charge of investigating his own department. “Nobody cares about our veterans more than Ric Shinseki,” Obama assured reporters. “I want to know the full scope of this problem, and that's why I ordered Secretary Shinseki to investigate.”

That’s absurd on at least two levels. First, as Obama also noted in his remarks, the Inspector General has an open investigation into the wait-list fraud. The IG should be independent of VA executives, including Shinseki himself, and that investigation may well end up making Shinseki’s performance a subject for the probe. Having Shinseki run his own investigation parallel to an IG probe is problematic at best, and potentially a conflict of interest.

More to the point, though, the issue of wait-list fraud had been known since before Obama took office. He campaigned for his first term as President on the issue of substandard care at the VA. During the 2008-9 transition prior to Obama’s inauguration, he and Shinseki were briefed on allegations that appointment data was being manipulated to hide long wait times. The 2010 memo confirmed those suspicions. Since then, Congress has increased the annual VA budget by 78 percent, and per-patient spending rose 27 percent at the VA – double the national rate of increase, and almost triple the rate of increase at Medicare of 10 percent.

Related: Veterans Say Enough Is Enough—VA Head Must Resign

Eric Shinseki had more than five years and plenty of additional resources to solve this problem, or even to “investigate” it. Yet the White House claimed this week that it was so shocked by the scandal that it hadn’t heard anything about wait-list fraud until news media began reporting on dying veterans languishing on faked appointment schedules. In any other organization, that kind of executive incompetence would get a subordinate fired. In the Obama administration, it gets the subordinate a televised statement of confidence and control over the investigation into his own lack of action.

This time, though, Shinseki’s position and Obama’s shrug may prove untenable. Two House Democrats, Georgia Reps. David Scott and John Barrow, followed Obama’s breezy business-as-usual speech by demanding Shinseki’s resignation. Rep. Tammy Duckworth – herself a disabled veteran – demanded that Obama provide “his personal attention” rather than relying on Shinseki. CNN’s Drew Griffin summed up the disappointment from veterans groups to the non-action of the Commander in Chief by reporting that what “they did not want to hear is we're going to wait for, yet again, another investigation, office of inspector general report, or some fact-finding mission.”

At the moment, though, Obama refuses to make his subordinates accountable for their own failures. A lot of incompetent bureaucrats will sleep easier tonight with this object lesson on accountability and leadership in the federal government from President Obama. Too bad our veterans won’t be able to join them.

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