Kevin Drum

The VA Scandal Is Bad, But Don't Make It Benghazi 2.0

| Thu May 22, 2014 6:25 AM EDT

A couple of days ago I was emailing with a friend who was bemoaning President Obama's slow response to the crisis at the Veterans Health Administration. It's obviously hard to take the other side of that argument, especially since Obama made the poor performance of the VHA a big campaign issue in 2007. Here's what he said:

It's time for comprehensive reform. When I am President, building a 21st century VA to serve our veterans will be an equal priority to building a 21st century military to fight our wars. My Secretary of Veteran's Affairs will be just as important as my Secretary of Defense. No more shortfalls — it's time to fully fund the VA medical center. No more delays — it's time to pass on-time VA budgets each and every year. No more means testing — it's time to allow all veterans back into the VA. I will immediately reverse a policy that led the VA to turn away nearly 1 million middle and low-income veterans since 2003.

Obviously this makes Obama an even bigger target than he would have been anyway. And the charges aimed at the VHA are pretty ugly. They need to be taken seriously.

Nonetheless, I replied that there was more to this than we were getting from the feeding-frenzy stories offered up by the media. Perhaps somebody ought to do a deep dive on the story of the VHA over the past couple of decades? I don't have the background to do this myself, but in the meantime I'd like to offer a few quick bullet points that anyone writing about the VHA should at least be aware of. Here they are:

  • During the Clinton administration, the performance of the VHA was revolutionized under Kenneth Kizer. The old VHA of Born on the 4th of July fame was turned into a top-notch health care provider that garnered great reviews from vets and bipartisan praise on Capitol Hill. The best account of this is Phil Longman's 2005 article, "Best Care Anywhere."
  • In 1999, Republicans decided to play dumb political games with Kizer's reappointment. Eventually, with the handwriting on the wall, he chose to leave the VHA.
  • Under the Bush administration, some of the VHA's old problems started to re-emerge, most likely because it no longer had either presidential attention or a great administrator. As early as 2002—before the Afghanistan and Iraq wars made things even worse—claims-processing time skyrocketed from 166 days to 224 days.
  • Under the Obama administration, the patient load of the VHA has increased by over a million. Partly this is because of the large number of combat vets returning from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and partly it's because Obama kept his promise to expand access to the VHA.
  • It was inevitable that this would increase wait times, and the VHA's claims backlog did indeed increase during the first three years of Obama's presidency. Over the past couple of years, however, wait times have shrunk dramatically. A digital claims system has finally been put in place, and the claims backlog today is less than half what it was at the beginning of 2013.
  • What's more, despite its backlog problems, the VHA still gets high marks from vets. Overall, satisfaction with VHA care is higher than satisfaction with civilian hospitals.
  • The most sensational charge against the VHA is that 40 or more vets died while they were waiting for appointments at the VA facilities in Phoenix. But so far there's no evidence of that. The inspector general investigating the VHA testified last week that of the 17 cases they've looked at so far, they haven't found any incidents of a patient death caused by excessive wait times.
  • In February, Republicans killed a bill that would have funded two dozen new medical centers. "I thought that maybe, just on this issue, this Senate could come together and do the right thing for our veterans," said Sen. Bernie Sanders. Nope.

Finally, it's important to distinguish between complaints about medical care and complaints about access to the VHA system. There are lots of complaints about the latter, partly because the rules about who's eligible for VA coverage are fairly complex. Both of these things are fair game, but they shouldn't be confused. They have different causes and different repercussions.

None of this is really meant to exonerate the Obama administration from whatever faults the VHA still has. He's been president for more than five years, after all. At the same time, the VHA has had a lot of problems for a long time, and their origins span parties, administrations and branches of government. Obama may deserve to get knocked around for not doing more to fix them, but he also deserves credit for finally making significant progress on issues that have festered for decades.

This isn't a story that deserves to be treated like Benghazi 2.0. Leave that to Fox News. If you're going to tell this story, you need to tell it all, both good and bad.

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Housekeeping Note

| Wed May 21, 2014 12:33 PM EDT

I have to schlep up to Anaheim for an extensive pulmonary exam this morning, and then I've got another one after lunch. So blogging will be pretty light for the rest of the day. I'll try to catch up this evening.

Republicans Propose Limiting Food Aid to Rural Children

| Wed May 21, 2014 12:32 PM EDT

Via TPM, here's the latest proposal from the Republican Party in its agriculture and food safety bill:

In a surprising twist, the bill language specifies that only rural areas are to benefit in the future from funding requested by the administration this year to continue a modest summer demonstration program to help children from low-income households — both urban and rural — during those months when school meals are not available.

Since 2010, the program has operated from an initial appropriation of $85 million, and the goal has been to test alternative approaches to distribute aid when schools are not in session. The White House asked for an additional $30 million to continue the effort, but the House bill provides $27 million for what’s described as an entirely new pilot program focused on rural areas only.

Democrats were surprised to see urban children were excluded. And the GOP had some trouble explaining the history itself. But a spokeswoman confirmed that the intent of the bill is a pilot project in “rural areas” only.

I guess that is surprising. Usually Republicans are a little more subtle in their contempt for poor people in urban areas. But now they're being completely up-front about it. Poor white kids will get extra money for meals when school is out of session. Poor black kids won't. I'm not surprised that Republicans had a hard time explaining this. So did Donald Sterling.

The November Midterm Election is Anyone's Game

| Wed May 21, 2014 11:57 AM EDT

The wonks at The Monkey Cage think Republicans have a 77 percent chance of taking the Senate in November. The wonks at The Upshot think Republicans have only a 43 percent chance of taking the Senate. The wonks at 538 seem to think it's close to a toss-up.

So I don't know what to think. I guess we'll have to wait for the actual election to happen. How very 20th century.

The Tea Party Is Dead. Long Live the Tea Party.

| Wed May 21, 2014 10:19 AM EDT

From John Boehner, addressing the issue of a war between the tea party and the GOP establishment:

There’s not that big a difference between what you call the tea party and your average conservative Republican.

Correct. Not anymore, anyway. There was a war between the establishment and the tea party, but the tea party won a pretty resounding victory. There may still be establishment types and Ted Cruz types in the GOP, but the Republican Party as a whole has adopted the tea party line lock, stock, and extremely smoking barrel. It's been as total a victory as you're ever likely to see in the real world.

There are always going to be candidates who are more or less rightward, but that's just normal politics, not a war. The war is over. Nationally speaking, the Republican Party is now all but indistinguishable from the crowds that rallied to the tea party banner in the spring of 2009.

Nation's Biggest Shale Oil Formation Gets a Sudden Downsizing

| Wed May 21, 2014 12:39 AM EDT

Fracking got a big setback today when a new analysis from the federal government reduced the estimated recoverable reserves of California's Monterey Shale formation by 96 percent:

Just 600 million barrels of oil can be extracted with existing technology, far below the 13.7 billion barrels once thought recoverable from the jumbled layers of subterranean rock spread across much of Central California, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said.

....The Monterey Shale formation contains about two-thirds of the nation's shale oil reserves. It had been seen as an enormous bonanza, reducing the nation's need for foreign oil imports through the use of the latest in extraction techniques, including acid treatments, horizontal drilling and fracking.

Easy come, easy go.

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Microsoft Betting on Business Users in Surface 3 Introduction

| Tue May 20, 2014 7:00 PM EDT

Microsoft introduced the Surface 3 today, a bigger, faster Windows tablet aimed at the business market. But Jay Yarow notes that the entire Surface venture has been a huge money sinkhole:

As a result, lots of people wonder what Microsoft is doing. Why is it even bothering to make the Surface? Shouldn't it just kill the Surface?

The easy answer is yes, Microsoft should just ax its money-losing Surface business. But the correct answer is that it should continue to invest in Surface despite its early troubles. 

Microsoft's Windows business is seriously threatened right now. The rise of Apple's mobile software, iOS, Google's mobile software, Android, and Google's lightweight desktop OS, Chrome, have all diminished Windows. At one point, Windows was running 90% of personal computing devices; today it's about 20%. 

If Microsoft doesn't make the Surface tablet, there's a chance no one will make Windows tablets. Why would Samsung, which has had massive success with Android, even waste its time with Windows? Why would HTC, or Lenovo, or any other company put significant resources toward Windows for tablets?

I don't know if that's true or not. It's possible, in fact, that the competition from Microsoft has actually kept some tablet makers out of the market. Why even bother competing when one of the players gets the OS for free?

I won't pretend to know which is true, but I sure hope Microsoft is guessing right, because I have a vested interest in Windows succeeding in the tablet market. I used an iPad for about a year, and then an Android tablet for a year. Then I bought a Dell Venue Windows tablet, and as I've mentioned before, it's head and shoulders better than either one. As a longtime Windows user, I suppose my objectivity is suspect, but I honestly didn't expect it to be very good. It is, though. The Modern UI is genuinely brilliant, and performance is smooth and fast even with an underpowered Atom processor. Add to that the fact that you can slap on a keyboard and switch to the desktop UI, and you have a tablet that can do just about anything.

Its big Achilles' heel, of course, is the feebleness of its app ecosystem. I was pleasantly surprised that I had no trouble finding very nice apps for everything I wanted to do, but obviously that was just a bit of luck. There are plenty of apps you can't get for Windows, and if one of them is an app you just have to have, then you're out of luck.

In any case, I like my Windows tablet, but I know that its future success depends on selling lots of units. And that in turn depends on the availability of lots of apps. So I sure hope Microsoft is making the right call with its Surface product line.

How the Koch Brothers Became the Koch Brothers

| Tue May 20, 2014 12:35 PM EDT

Need some lunchtime reading? We have a long excerpt up from Daniel Schulman's new book about the Koch brothers, Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful and Private Dynasty, and if you want to learn how and why David and Charles Koch became such ruthless fighters for the conservative cause, this will tell you. Long story short, they got it from their family. Their father passed down an obsessive, conspiratorial conservative streak, and endless fights with their brothers toughened them up for the political arena.

The excerpt is here. Enjoy.

Chris Christie Takes Blowhardism on the Road

| Tue May 20, 2014 10:44 AM EDT

Being a blowhard has worked well for Chris Christie at home, so it's no surprise that he endorses blowhardism as a foreign policy too. In a speech on Sunday, he assured everyone that a Christie administration would....would.....well, something:

In Sunday's speech, with rhetoric reminiscent of President Bush's first speeches after 9/11, the governor made a moralistic case for clearly distinguishing between "good" allies and "evil" enemies.

....Though Christie offered few specifics, he particularly trashed Obama's policies on Russia, Syria, and Iran. "We see Russian activism once again rearing its head in the world, we see an America that backed away from a commitment made by the president of the United States in Syria, we see a country, our country, permitting even a thought of a terrorist state like Iran having nuclear capability," he said. "Here's something that should not be up for debate, that once you draw that red line, you enforce it — because if you don't, America's credibility will be at stake and will be at risk all over the world."

There should be a constitutional amendment or something banning speeches like this unless you're willing to explain, in some detail, exactly what you would have done instead. Cut and run, like Christie's hero Ronald Reagan did in Beirut? Lie your way into a disastrous war like his hero George Bush did? Or what? I'm really tired of hearing nonsense about how we should have "supported" one side or another in Egypt or Syria or Ukraine. Or how we should have sent heavy arms over, even though no one was trained to use them and in some cases we didn't even have anyone reliable to send them to. Or that somehow just giving another "evil empire" speech would have sent the mullahs screaming into the night.

We didn't win the Cold War because Reagan gave some speeches. We won because of low oil prices, a foolish war in Afghanistan, poor harvests, and the effective bankruptcy of the Soviet Union. We're not going to win any of these other conflicts with bluster either. So let's hear it. Is Christie planning a military strike against Iran? Troops on the ground in Syria? Cruise missile strikes against Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border? If Christie doesn't have the guts to say this stuff outright, he should keep his bluster to himself. Without specifics, this is just laughable schoolyard bravado.

AT&T Plans to Start Screwing You Over in 2018

| Mon May 19, 2014 5:41 PM EDT

From Brian Fung:

AT&T has announced it's buying DirecTV in a $49 billion deal — an enormous acquisition that could turn one of the nation's top telecom companies into a formidable player in the pay-TV market. And the agreement is sure to be examined closely by federal regulators.

To help win their approval, AT&T is offering to abide by net neutrality principles for three years: the company would not block Web sites; it would also not discriminate against certain Web content by slowing down or speeding up different lanes of Internet traffic to customers.

This is practically a promise to begin implementing slow-lane service for non-favored websites in 2018. It's what every ISP in the country wants to do: make a few fuzzy, short-term promises in order to get approval for the rules they want; remain on their best behavior for a few years; and then steadily start putting the hammer down in small enough increments that they hope nobody notices.

Hey, it worked for the financial industry! Why not internet providers too?