From the NYTimes At War blog By JAMES DAO
On Tuesday, the House Veterans Affairs Committee held one of its perennial hearings on the ever-growing backlog of disability compensation claimspending before the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The usual polite questioning of V.A. officials was expected, followed by the usual complex answers that few on the committee might be expected to comprehend.
But the affair turned surprisingly contentious, not because of the Republican majority, but thanks to the ranking Democrat on the panel, Representative Bob Filner of California.
After a relatively tame opening statement in which the vice chairman, Representative Gus Bilirakis, a Republican of Florida, called on the V.A. “to break this cycle of unproductively and deliver the benefits that V.A. was created to provide,” Mr. Filner, voice dripping with sarcasm, announced: “Well, here we are again.”
Recalling his first backlog hearing some 20 years ago, Mr. Filner noted with rising irritation that the V.A. has hired, by his count, more than 10,000 new employees in recent years, but has seen the backlog more than double, to over 900,000 pending claims. Yet the Veterans Benefits Administration, the division that handles disability compensation, had done little more than “recycle programs,” he said.
“The definition of insanity is to try the same thing over and over again and expect different results,” he said, sounding a theme he would return to several times during the nearly five-hour hearing.
The congressman, who is running for mayor of San Diego, as veteran-friendly a town as exists in America, was just getting started. After a panel of experts from four major veteran service organizations, including the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, testified about V.B.A.’s problems, Mr. Filner tore into them, too. Heads turned.
Accusing the groups of “playing” the V.A.’s games by allowing themselves to be easily wooed into submission by promises of access to senior officials, Mr. Filner urged the groups to support “radical” change and “blow up” or “break” what he called “this stupid system.”
“What are you afraid of?” he taunted more than once from the depths of his chair, which bounced back and forth with each of his rhetorical lunges.
Gerald Manar, deputy director of National Veterans Service for the V.F.W., responded for the group, ever so politely: “Sir, when you blow up something, you have nothing left.”