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posted: 6/29/2014 5:01 AM

The lesson Congress should learn from the VA scandal

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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. The House and Senate have each passed their own legislation to fix the VA's health system, including a massive infusion of money -- at least $50 billion a year -- to allow veterans to seek private health care. Fiscal watchdogs are crying foul, and the measures have ignited a furious debate over whether Congress should cut other programs. 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.

To do this, it first needs to know what's happening. Each committee and subcommittee with oversight responsibility should be keeping track -- on a close, even intimate basis -- of the department and agencies in its purview. Performance, budget, personnel, management challenges, major and minor problems: members of Congress ought to be experts on them all. They should also listen carefully to their constituents and interest groups focused on the performance of a particular agency, which are often in a position to give Congress valuable information. Understanding the facts, working cooperatively with the federal agency, and anticipating problems is a far more useful approach than Congress's usual pattern of throwing up its hands at a scandal and blaming everyone else for the problem. The crush of demand for VA services in the wake of two wars was easily foreseeable. Had Congress been on its toes, it could have reacted to it.

Congress must also 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 constructively.

If Congress wants federal agencies to work better, it has to work tirelessly to understand problems and help repair them. It cannot eliminate politics from this oversight process, but politics should not drive the whole oversight enterprise.

The point is that many failures of the federal bureaucracy can be avoided with robust congressional oversight. It's a crucial part of improving the performance of government, and Congress has a duty to get ahead of problems, not lag constantly behind. Unless it's willing to accept its responsibility for diligent oversight, the next scandal is only a matter of time.

• Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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