Akaka faces formidable task in oversight of veterans committee
The Department of Veterans Affairs is being criticized for its red tape and inadequacy in providing care to wounded soldiers.
AN outburst of revelations about the inadequate care of soldiers
wounded in the Iraq war has turned the spotlight on what is classified as a second-tier Senate committee, headed by Sen. Daniel Akaka. The Hawaii senator has been sensitive in responding to the attention as the new chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee and faces a serious challenge in the months and years ahead.
The veterans committee is among four panels described in Senate rules as "Class B" committees, behind a dozen committees given greater importance. Reports emerging from the Washington Post series about Walter Reed Army Medical Center show that Senate evaluation of its structure doesn't necessarily reflect public concern.
In more than 16 years on the committee, and as its ranking Democrat in the last Republican Congress, Akaka is well-versed on the issues. At a hearing last week, he expressed confidence in the Department of Veterans Affairs but called for "improvements" and a $2.9 billion increase to the Bush administration's proposed VA budget of $86.7 billion.
Fallout from the VA problems might compare with that following the Walter Reed reports, which led to the firing of the secretary of the Army and the Walter Reed commander. Public scrutiny now is directed at Jim Nicholson, a Vietnam War veteran and past chairman of the Republican National Committee, who was appointed by Bush to be secretary of the VA in 2005.
Akaka claims a "productive working relationship" with Sen. Larry Craig, the committee's ranking Republican and past chairman. However, Craig last week proposed allowing disabled veterans to seek treatment at any hospital, not just from the VA, apparently without consulting Akaka, whose spokeswoman said he had "not had time to review it."
Craig earlier in the week suggested Nicholson and the VA are victims of political maneuvering. "People now want to say that not only are they against the war and the way the president has handled it," Craig told the New York Times, "but now they want to take aim at the way the government takes care of the veterans." Akaka has been a strident opponent of the war.
Criticism of the VA is mounting. The Times reported two days ago that disabled veterans face serious inequities in compensation depending on where they live and whether they were active duty or members of the National Guard or Reserve.
Annual disability payments from the VA in 2006 averaged $4,962 for active duty soldiers and $3,603 for Guard and Reserve members. The same factors also determine whether some soldiers wait nearly twice as long to receive benefits, according to the Times analysis of VA figures. Such inequities are unfair to Guard and Reserve members who are doing front-line duty, often for multiple tours, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and must be corrected.