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V.A. Scandal: Playing Politics or Seeking Solutions?

Aired May 22, 2014 - 18:28   ET


STEPHANIE CUTTER, CO-HOST: Wolf, we're debating a crisis that's making bigger headlines every day.

NEWT GINGRICH, CO-HOST: And these bigger headlines, what's President Obama doing about it today? Visiting the baseball hall of fame and attending a fund-raiser in Chicago. So in his absence, the debate starts right now.


ANNOUNCER: Tonight on CROSSFIRE, getting control of the V.A. scandal. The revelations keep coming.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is just the tip of the iceberg.

ANNOUNCER: The pressure keeps building.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: We can't just let them down. We've let them die. This is awful stuff.

ANNOUNCER: On the left, Stephanie Cutter. On the right, Newt Gingrich. In the CROSSFIRE, Representative Joe Crowley, a New York Democrat, and Representative Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican. Is Washington playing scandal politics? Or looking for solutions? Tonight on CROSSFIRE.


GINGRICH: Welcome to CROSSFIRE. I'm Newt Gingrich on the right.

CUTTER: And I'm Stephanie Cutter on the left. In the CROSSFIRE tonight, congressmen from both parties.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki was on Capitol Hill today briefing lawmakers on the investigation into reports of delayed care and cover-ups. Shinseki says he hasn't offered to resign, and he just released a message to the nation's veterans, saying if any of the allegations are true, quote, "We will act."

But that hasn't stopped some Republicans from rushing to judgment and trying to score cheap political points, Newt. I suggest they follow the lead of Speaker John Boehner. Today, in effect, he told everyone to chill out.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BOEHNER: This isn't about the secretary. It's about the entire system underneath him. And so I don't want -- I don't want people to get confused about what the shiny ball is here. The shiny ball is a systemic failure of this agency.


CUTTER: This isn't about President Obama or cheap political shots. This isn't about Secretary Shinseki. It's about fixing a system that for decades has been failing men and women who put their lives on the line for our country. Some of the backlog problems we're discussing today go back more than 20 years, which means we all bear responsibility.

So political grandstanding is unacceptable and Republicans should be called on it -- Newt.

GINGRICH: Well, as Speaker Boehner said, we are going to, in fact, follow the shiny ball tonight. In the CROSSFIRE tonight, New York Congressman Joe Crowley, who's a member of the House Democratic leadership team, and Oklahoma Republican Congressman Tom Cole. And we are delighted to have you.

But let me start with the challenge that the president has. You know, he is up in Cooperstown, and maybe at the hall of fame he'll learn a little bit about scoring runs and hitting the ball, because today a leading Democratic columnist described him as President Passive.

And if you saw yesterday's press conference, in a little bit of what Shinseki said today, which is after all that stuff, "Gee, if we find something, we will act." Aren't you a little concerned at the pace at how far behind the news media -- the administration has been in trying to understand the scandal?

REP. JOE CROWLEY (D), NEW YORK: I think the president is acting appropriately. He has dispatched his deputy White House chief of staff, Rob Nabors, to Arizona to demonstrate his personal involvement in getting to the root of this problem. Finding out what took place, what happened.

And as he said, let the chips fall where they may and wherever this leads, action will be taken whether it's criminal action that needs to be taken, legislative action that needs to be taken that I think we really do need to address.

And that is the fact that we have almost 2 million more men and women who have served their country, who have come back to the United States, who need help and assistance from the V.A., and we the Congress need to make sure that they have every resource they possibly need to take care of those men and women coming home.

CUTTER: Congressman Cole, I just want to go back for one second to that political grandstanding that Newt was discussing and actually took some shots on. And take a look at Senator Thune who said this.


SEN. JOHN THUNE (R), SOUTH DAKOTA: This V.A. issue is a national embarrassment, and the president's response to it is an embarrassment.


CUTTER: But we just heard Speaker Boehner say this isn't about the president; this is about Shinseki. We need to keep our eye on the ball, basically.

So where do you stand? Do you stand with -- you know, with making these political pot shots or do you stand with Speaker Boehner where everybody should just remained focused on this investigation so that we can actually fix the problem?

REP. TOM COLE (R), OKLAHOMA: Well, I think the speaker also was pretty emphatic: look, we have potential criminal wrongdoing here. We have people that have died. The administration has been there five years. Five years.

And this actually isn't a congressional problem. When President Bush was president we increased funding by about 100 percent, the veterans, and we've continued to do that under President Obama. In other words, Congress will write the check, Republican or Democrat. It's actually never been a flashpoint. We just added $1.8 billion more to the budget than what we passed in the House a couple weeks ago. This is a failure of administrative oversight.

Look, I'm a big admirer of General Shinseki. I served on House Armed Services Committee when he was Army chief of staff. This guy that left a piece of himself in Vietnam fighting for this country. This is a guy what was right about Iraq. So I have a lot of admiration.

But five years, and we're now finding what looks like systemic criminal -- you've got to hold...

CUTTER: Well, we can get to the bottom of this. I mean, there's an investigation in place.

COLE: When you're padding -- when you're padding...

CROWLEY: There's also some suggestion this goes back beyond...


CUTTER: ... the five years that President Obama's been in place. So, and to say it's not a congressional issue, it certainly is a congressional issue as to whether or not we're giving the resources to the V.A. to carry out the mandate that Congress has set for them. And that is to take care of the men and women who come back who leave a piece of them, whether it's physically or mentally, back in the country where they served.

And -- and I think -- I would disagree with the sense that if -- if we're giving them enough money, why are these backlogs taking place? Why is it 125 days?

COLE: We've been giving them the money they asked for. That's the point.

CUTTER: That's not exactly true.

COLE: That actually is exactly true. You don't increase an agency by 100 percent under one president and continue on essentially the same clip. The idea -- again, I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't do more. If the answer came back, we need more, I think the Congress in a bipartisan sense would do it.

GINGRICH: Wait a second. You guys -- you guys yesterday had a bipartisan vote -- you two voted together -- that said that Shinseki will now have the authority to fire 435 senior executives. Now, that would certainly imply that, prior to yesterday, he didn't have the -- the Senate, of course, is leaving today without having picked this up.

But certainly, there seems to be some belief that there's a structural problem as well as a financial problem. And that the structure may well be incapable in this current form. I mean, do you expect a significant -- are you comfortable if a significant number of those 435 don't have their jobs at the end of the summer?

CROWLEY: What I'm comfortable in, Newt, is that the men and women who deserve the care that they need get that care. No matter whether you fire folks or not. At the end of the day, if it doesn't get the men and women who need the help that they need, then you're really not accomplishing anything.

Why I voted for the bill was to give the authority to the secretary to make the changes that he thinks he needs to make in order to make it a more effective and more efficient V.A. and get the help to the people that need it.

GINGRICH: Let me have a specific example. Senator Heller was here from Nevada last night. He says that the head of the Reno V.A., who by the way, is a layer below the ones who would be fired, refuses to answer any call by members of the delegation. Now, isn't there some point at which there ought to be some ability to reassert control?

CROWLEY: There's no question that something went wrong here. There's no doubt about it. Even the president said that. General Shinseki has said that. And we want to get to the root of this.

I think calling for heads to roll without knowing who's responsible --and I tell you this, if there was criminal activity, they need to face criminal charges.

CUTTER: And Secretary Shinseki did send out a message to veterans tonight on the eve of Memorial Day, and he repeated the details of the investigation that's under way. Two hundred senior members of the V.A. are going through every single major facility -- they're independent of these facilities -- to get to the bottom of what's going on so that they can take action to fix it. Are you satisfied with that?

COLE: I think it's a step in the right direction. But look, I also have to look at -- this is the fifth year. This is the fifth year. And I don't think -- at least, I don't recall that the authority we gave General Shinseki has been asked for before. This is actually a congressional initiative to let's give you more tools.

CUTTER: Where's the congressional oversight? He's been there for five years. This problem goes way back. Where's congressional oversight?

COLE: There's a lot of congressional oversight, but you know you only can deal with the information you're given by an agency that's now producing statistics that we know aren't true. You have to hold people in the agency accountable. I'm glad we gave them the tool. Glad we did that in a bipartisan fashion.

Politically, I think it's going to be very hard to sustain the current leadership that's been there for five years and didn't discover the problem is now reacting after the facts.

GINGRICH: Listen, to be clear for a second, a lot of the stuff we're unearthing is about lying. So when you have oversight with people who are lying, it's a little tricky.

CUTTER: Isn't that the same -- you're making the point on both the administration's point and Congress' point, then. If somebody's lying, then there's no possible way for anybody to have advanced warning on this. But there are some facts here that we need to remember.

Congressman Crowley, you talked about the 2 million people added to the system, just in the last couple of years. That's a significant need in resources to deal with the health care.

GINGRICH: But let me offer a little bit different view of this, which is I think a real secret here in Washington, which causes massive problems at every federal agency, not just the Veterans Administration.

Next, I will tell you what it is and I'll tell you who agrees with me. I think you're going to be surprised.

But first, today's "CROSSFIRE Quiz." Which agency has the largest workforce? Is it the Department of the Army? Veterans Affairs? Or Homeland Security? We'll have the answer when we get back.


GINGRICH: Welcome back.

Now, the answer to our CROSSFIRE quiz. Veterans Affairs has the largest workforce accounting for 15 percent of all federal civilian employees. Next comes the Army, the Navy, Homeland Security, and the Air Force. But no matter which agency you work for, Washington's real secret is that Congress has piled up so many rules and so many regulations, it is nearly impossible to do anything innovative. Even if the people at Google and Facebook took over Veterans Affairs, they could not clean up the information mess.

If you won't take my word for it, listen to this man. You may have heard, he had a few problems setting up a federal Web site for his favorite project.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: How we purchase technology in the federal government is cumbersome, complicated, and outdated. You're going through, you know, 40 pages of specs, and this and that, and the other, and there are all kinds of laws involved and it makes it more difficult.


GINGRICH: I agree with President Obama. If Congress really wants to fix the Veterans Administration, it needs to change the law about buying information technology. And that is Congress' job. Not the president's or Secretary Shinseki's.

In the CROSSFIRE tonight, Congressman Joe Crowley and Tom Cole.

I want to share, I was very struck by this. There was a poll today -- I want to put up this for a second, Congressman Crowley -- that asked the question, who do you blame most? I was fascinated when I saw it because it has Secretary Shinseki in the national V.A., the local V.A. hospitals, or President Obama.

It didn't have the Congress. And it struck me, and again, I'm a big, as you know as speaker of the house, I deeply believe in this.

But in all fairness, when you look at the systemic changes, when you look at this universal problem with information technology, doesn't Congress need to take a really big bite at trying to figure out how to fix these things on a big scale?

REP. JOE CROWLEY (D), NEW YORK: I think looking for the rainbow here because it's a dark period right now. People have died because of denial of care where they ought to have gotten that care. We need to find out why that happened.

But at the end of the day, how can we make this system a better system? That's what it's about. Getting the men and women who deserve the system to delivering the health care that they deserve is what it's about. In the end, we need to find a way to simplify it, make it work in more efficient ways.

And I think that's something the Democrats and Republicans would both agree upon is this is not about politics. This ought to be about getting these men and women -- adding to this the fact that you now take for granted if you're exposed in Vietnam to Agent Orange -- STEPHANIE CUTTER, CO-HOST: That's right.

CROWLEY: -- you come with certain predisposed notions about how to take care of them. That's also adding to this.

But we have to give them the resources, give them the doctors, real nurses they need to take care of these folks.

CUTTER: There's another piece of this poll, Congressman Cole, that I want to point out. They did poll some veterans and here's what veterans said the problem at the V.A. hospitals are.

Not having adequate resources, 44 percent. Not properly managing those resources, 43 percent. So it's pretty even in terms of resources and reform.

Do you agree with that?

REP. TOM COLE (R), OKLAHOMA: Actually I do. Again, I point out the resources here actually have grown much faster than almost any other area of government. They've done it under a Republican and Democrat president alike. They've done it in Republican and Democratic congresses alike.

So I think getting a handle on this thing in an executive sense is really critical. I think Congress is prepared to do its part in oversight and that we clearly, again, the tools that Secretary Shinseki just got were given to him by the Congress. I mean, this is something, OK, we want you to have this.

CUTTER: One piece of follow-up on that. You know, the V.A. makes a budget request every year. The House underfunded that budget request $50 million for information technology and $368 million for services. So that's 0 for 2. Go back to Newt's baseball analogy, you're 0 for 2.

How -- you know, they have an increase demand because of the 2 million vets brought into the system.

COLE: Well, yes and no, look, the number of veterans --

CUTTER: And you're cutting their funding request by hundreds of billions.


COLE: Quite frankly, what's happening here, and it's actually paradoxically. The V.A. has expanded -- we put enough money in, more people that are eligible are using it now, which is a good thing. But it does create an administrative problem in terms of catch-up. There's not like there's more veterans. There are more people using it because the facilities in many cases are better than they were.

CUTTER: Yes, 2 million more.

COLE: And again, that -- believe me, I understand. That's about 7 million. About 25 million in terms of veterans populations and people that actually use it.

But, again, Congress has been willing to do this. Presidents have been willing to do this.

But there are a whole layers of protection for the bureaucracy. There are whole impediments here that frankly largely Democratic built in many cases, from a labor standpoint that need to be gotten out of the way.

CUTTER: What about the funding?

CROWLEY: We've just -- well, we're winding down two wars. I mean, it's not as if these people aren't coming home. They are coming home and thankfully so.

They're going to need additional help. People who have been exposed to roadside bombs and have traumatic brain injuries and have been exposed to things that no one of us, thankfully, will be exposed to -- they're going to need help. And that pressure is being brought to bear on the system that right now have got the biggest increase since the G.I. bill under a Democratic Congress. We need to continue that and make sure they have every resource they need.

GINGRICH: But let me give you an example of why I talked about reform.

We spent $2.1 billion in the Defense Department on health information technology and failed totally. They spent $1,200,000,000 trying to fix the V.A. Defense Department interface and announced in February they were giving up because they just couldn't figure it out.

Now, it takes 183 days to transfer from the Defense Department to the V.A. It takes 11 seconds to get money out of your atm. This is why -- I can't tell you if we have enough people or not enough people because the system is so totally screwed up right now. I have no idea.

CROWLEY: It may not be just about money. I'll be willing to say that.

I'll tell you, I have a bill that would require any doctor that when a person comes in and they ask this one question -- have you ever served in our nation's military. Because some vets don't want to go to V.A. for whatever reason. That one question in and of itself can direct the doctor towards diagnosing what the problem may be and really saving us all money and having a better system. One little simple bill.

So, I think there are things we can do to help make it a better system. But I think getting bogged down in the politics and the blame game isn't going to help anyone.

COLE: I actually don't think we are bogged down in the politics.

CROWLEY: I don't know. If you look what is going on -- COLE: Well, look, you have Democrats calling for Shinseki to resign. It's not like it's been a Republican -- there are a lot of members. And, you know, listening to John Barrow earlier today talking about some of his constituents that he think died as a result of this, you know, you're going to be pretty upset.

So, making this into a Republican witch-hunt, it's just not. You have bipartisan outrage about what's happened.

You have an administration that frankly has been sort of caught napping here. This came up on them. They didn't see it. We've been willing to write checks.

So, again, I think at some point -- and look, I don't think this is General Shinseki. But clearly, we've got a whole layer of people between him and the truth who ought to get fired.

CROWLEY: Tom, I didn't say it was a partisan issue. I'm saying calling for the secretary's resignation and thinking it's going to solve the problem, it's not.

COLE: I agree with you.

CROWLEY: That's the point I make, not Democratic, Republican. We're both outraged.

CUTTER: We need to see the investigation through.

OK. Stay here. We want you at home to weigh in on today's "Fireback" question. Who do you blame most for the V.A. scandal? We've added that missing category. Tweet Shinseki, Obama or Congress. We'll have results after the break.

We also have the outrages of the day. I'm outraged at a Florida Republican who thinks that good education will make your child gay.


CUTTER: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

Now, it's time for our outrages of the day.

Experts and teachers in 44 states plus Washington, D.C. have come up with a set of standards that are supposed to ensure students are prepared for a college level entry careers or job training programs. It's called Common Core.

And whether or not you agree with it, I'm outraged by a Florida state lawmaker's objection to it. Republican Charles Van Zant says the people implementing Common Core have a hidden agenda, to, quote, "attract every one of your children to become as homosexual as they possibly can", end quote.

If a better education and a basic intelligence is what makes you gay, then this guy has nothing to worry about. Mr. Van Zant, you are safely heterosexual. GINGRICH: Talk about a different kind of safety.

I'm outraged because Obamacare's so-called glitches aren't limited to computers. Federal bureaucrats would not let a South Carolina woman get the medicine she needs because their Web site kept telling them she's a man.

Shelby Higdon says she called eight times and talked with what she believed were real people. And she called the insurance company and talked to what she was sure were real people because they started hanging up on her. She could not get her medicine for three weeks because they kept saying she was a man.

Finally, she called a TV station which called the bureaucrats who claim they have now fixed the problem with Obamacare.

So, you don't have to be a veteran to be abused by bureaucrats.

CUTTER: Let's check on our "Fireback" results. Who do you blame most for the V.A. scandal? We've added a missing category, tweet Shinseki, Obama or Congress.

Right now, 9 percent of you say Shinseki, 38 percent say Obama and 53 percent say Congress.

COLE: Hardly a surprise. But it does reveal why the president attacks Congress when he thinks something goes wrong in his administration, because we're the easy guys to kick around.

The reality is here two administrations have gotten almost everything they requested in terms of dollars from Congress. Congress actually preemptively gave this week additional tools on a bipartisan basis, by the way.

This is not a -- this is an executive failure of the first magnitude. Probably was under Bush. Certainly is under this president. And frankly, I think at the end of the day, that's the way it will play out.

CROWLEY: I think the Congress has a role to play here, obviously. I'm not totally shocked by the results. We have been so focused on make-believe crises like the IRS scandal and Benghazi. Here is something we really should be delving into in terms of our oversight responsibilities. And Congress has failed in this particular case.

CUTTER: Thanks to Representatives Joe Crowley and Tom Cole.

The debate continues at, as well as Facebook and Twitter.

From the left, I'm Stephanie Cutter.

GINGRICH: From the right, I'm Newt Gingrich.

Join us next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.