Like other federal scandals before it, the mess involving VA hospitals has followed a well-trod path. First comes the revelation of misdoing. Then comes the reaction: a shocked public, an administration on the defensive, grandstanding members of Congress. Finally, major reform bills get introduced, debated, then put aside when the heat dies down, or the target agency gets more money thrown at the problem.
With the VA, we’re at the reform part of the cycle – and in its rush to address public outrage, Congress is proposing dramatic changes that could have benefited from more thorough consideration.
The irony is that this need not have happened – not with the VA, nor with the IRS or FEMA, or any of the other cases in recent years where the federal bureaucracy proved to be dysfunctional and Congress rushed in with a half-baked fix. Mostly what is needed is for Congress to do its job properly in the first place.
This means exercising its oversight responsibilities and catching problems before they mushroom. Diligent oversight can repair unresponsive bureaucracies, expose misconduct, and help agencies and departments become more effective. A lot of federal employees are doing good work, at the VA and throughout the federal government; Congress needs to encourage that work while ridding the government of shoddy practices.
To do this, it first needs to know what’s happening. Each committee and subcommittee with oversight responsibility should be keeping track of the departments and agencies in its purview. Performance, budget, personnel, management challenges – members of Congress ought to be experts on all this and more.
Members should also listen carefully to constituents and interest groups that focus on the performance of particular agencies and are often in a position to give Congress valuable information. Understanding the facts, working cooperatively with the agencies and anticipating problems is a far more useful approach than Congress’ usual pattern of throwing up its hands and blaming everyone else for the problem.
Congress also must get serious about reforming the federal bureaucracy. Federal employees deserve to feel they’re being listened to, respected, and treated fairly, but management also must have flexibility to hire and fire, and to handle personnel problems proactively. Congress has to insist that these agencies are training, recruiting and retaining the talent they need.
If Congress wants federal agencies to work better, it has to understand problems and address them before they explode. Legislators need to regularly get answers to essential questions: Does the agency have adequate resources? How can it control bloat and tighten the gap between the people at the top and those on the front line? Are there problems that need addressing right now?
Congress cannot eliminate politics from the oversight process, but politics should not drive the process.
The point is that many failures of the federal bureaucracy can be avoided with robust congressional oversight; Congress has a duty to get ahead of problems, not lag constantly behind. Unless our elected representatives are willing to accept their responsibility for diligent oversight, the next scandal is just around the corner.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional District as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.