In anger and embarrassment, Congressional Republicans are scrambling to repair a budget shortfall in veterans’ medical care now that the Bush administration has admitted it vastly underestimated the number of returning Iraq and Afghanistan personnel needing treatment. The $1 billion-plus gaffe is considerable, with the original budget estimate of 23,553 returned veterans needing care this year now ballooning to 103,000. American taxpayers should be even more furious than Congress.
The Capitol’s Republican majorities have shown no hesitation in signing the president’s serial blank-check supplemental budgets for waging the war, yet they repeatedly ignored months of warnings from Democrats that returning veterans were being shortchanged. One Republican who warned of the problem – Representative Christopher Smith of New Jersey – lost his chairmanship of the Veterans Affairs Committee after pressing his plea too boldly before the House leadership.
But partisan resistance melted in a flood of political chagrin once the administration admitted the budget error, which was first discovered in April but only now disclosed. The explanation offered – the gaffe was due to using dated formulas based on prewar calculations – left Republicans sputtering all the more.
All wars necessarily involve mismanagement, even successful ones. But there is no excuse for treating the needs of wounded and damaged warriors as a budgetary afterthought. Congressional Republicans were far from innocent victims of administrative ineptitude or deception. After years of approving record tax cuts and budget deficits, they stuck to this year’s pre-election script of fictitious “budget tightening” that underestimated inevitable expenses and shortchanged returning veterans with higher health care enrollment fees and drug co-payments. The only comfort for the American public is that unlike many of the war’s problems, this one can be repaired, providing partisan combat is suspended in the Capitol.