Tapped: The Prospect Group Blog

Warren Calls on Banks to Invest in Minority Neighborhoods, Businesses

Senator Elizabeth Warren recently warned that minority families and businesses continue to suffer disproportionately from the lingering effects of the Great Recession and called on the country’s banks to step up to assist local communities.

Warren noted that most Americans experienced severe hardships during the economic downturn. “In 2013, the median income of white households was 13 times that of black households,” she said. But she also underlined the fact that large financial institutions had specifically targeted minority homebuyers with subprime loans that had a devastating impact on their finances.

“The housing collapse destroyed trillions of dollars in family wealth,” the Massachusetts Democrat told the Center for Global Policy Solutions’ “Color of Wealth” summit in Washington last week. “But the crash hit African American families like a punch in the gut.” “White households lost on average 11 percent of their wealth,” she added, “but black households lost over 30 percent of their wealth.” Given these disparities, Warren argued that “the federal government [needs] to make real investments in communities of color.”

The Center has released a study, “The Color of Entrepreneurship,” that documents racial disparities in the business sector. According to the report, racism has blunted the benefits of minority-owned businesses: The U.S. economy continues to forgo about 1.1 million minority-owned businesses due to historic and current instances of discrimination. The report concluded that if those businesses were up and running, they would potentially create nine million jobs and increase the U.S. national income by $300 billion.

The center’s analysis of business ownership survey data from the Census Bureau found that while the overall number of minority-owned businesses grew, the number of firms owned by African American men dropped by 2.3 percent. Black men were the only group to experience a decline.

Minority- and women-owned businesses have also experienced declines in average sales. In 2012, firms owned by men regardless of race had higher average sales than companies owned by women. Among male-owned businesses, white-owned firms saw the highest average sales in 2012, and black-owned firms the lowest. Similarly, firms owned by white women had the highest average sales and those run by black women, the lowest.

Most minority-owned businesses saw a decline in average wages as well. Employees working for companies owned by American Indian women saw a 6 percent drop in average pay, the biggest drop in the survey.

American Indian men and Hispanic men also experienced steep declines in wages, at 5.8 and 5.6 percent respectively. Employees working for firms owned by white women and white men saw a 0.2 percent and 1.3 percent decrease in average wages, respectively. However, workers employed by firms owned by black men saw a 1.2 percent increase in average pay.

The report suggested several ways to close the wealth gap, ranging from tax credits for new minority entrepreneurs (which could attract venture capital) to staving off tuition and fee hikes at state universities so that young entrepreneurs leave college with less debt and more money to invest in a business.

Warren proposed expanding the Community Reinvestment Act, a Carter administration-era reform that encourages commercial banks to invest in low-income communities. Federal officials make “deliberate policy choices that favor those with money and power,” said Warren. “The American people are holding up our end of the bargain. But for too long, many banks have not been holding up their end, and that has got to stop.”

This post has been updated. 

Pentagon Continues to Mull Over Lifting Ban on Transgender Troops

LGBT advocates were elated when Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that the Pentagon intended to lift the military’s longstanding ban on transgender members, saying that the current policy was an “outdated, confusing, inconsistent approach that’s contrary to our value of individual merit.” Nine months later, the transgender community is still waiting for the department to make its move.

Last July, Carter commissioned a task force to look into the implications of lifting the current transgender service ban and gave the group six months to investigate. At the end of 2015, a Pentagon spokesperson said that the task force’s initial report would be completed in January, but the findings have yet to be made public. (Several media outlets reported that the Pentagon would end the ban on May 27, but department officials have pulled back from that timeline.)

Currently, the military bans openly transgender people from enlisting and public disclosure of one’s transgender status is grounds for discharge. Carter also announced in July a change in the process for discharging currently enlisted transgender service members. The move made it easier for transgender individuals to remain on duty while top Pentagon officials consider lifting the ban, “but it is still unsafe for troops to be out,” says Aaron Belkin, director of the Palm Center, a San Francisco-based research center that publishes reports on gender, sexuality, and the military.

A New York Times editorial noted that 77 service members have disclosed their transgender status to their superiors in the past year. A 2014 UCLA Williams Institute report estimated that there were 15,500 transgender people in the military. After the most recent military force reductions, Belkin now estimates that there are about 13,000 transgender people in active service.

Two years ago, a commission co-chaired by former U.S. surgeon general Jocelyn Elders reported “that there is no compelling medical rationale for banning transgender military service, and that eliminating the ban would advance a number of military interests.”

Recent research bears out those conclusions. According to the Times, a forthcoming RAND Corporation study found that lifting the service ban was unlikely to affect unit cohesion, that only a very small number of individuals would seek gender transition–related medical care annually, and that those costs would be “negligible.”

The Pentagon has been criticized for the delays and for a lack of transparency on transgender issues. Earlier this month, Brad Carson, an acting under secretary of defense who had been the Pentagon’s top civilian official on personnel matters and a key player in the efforts to open the military to transgender service members, resigned after a combative Senate Armed Forces Committee confirmation hearing earlier this year.

Lifting the ban on transgender military service would be another milestone in the Obama administration’s efforts to remove the some of the remaining barriers to military service for certain groups. In 2010, Congress repealed the controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy that prevented gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members from serving openly. Last December, Carter announced that all military combat positions, including those in elite units like the Navy SEALs, would be open to women.

Vice President Elizabeth Warren?

AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Senator Elizabeth Warren speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington. Warren, the populist senator from Massachusetts, told The Boston Globe in September that she would likely endorse a presidential candidate during the primaries, but has since remained coy. 


The Boston Globe has reported that Hillary Clinton is considering picking a woman running-mate, and the optics suggest that this means Elizabeth Warren. The Globe quotes an on-the-record interview with no less than Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.

So what’s this about? Is it the Clinton campaign signaling to Sanders supporters that she would reach to her left in selecting a vice presidential candidate? Is it just a trial balloon? Would Warren take the job? And is it a good idea?

I have no inside information. But you don’t put something like this out there without first clearing it, lest you get shot down. Clearly, there must have been conversations with Warren before Podesta just ran the idea up the flagpole.

Would this be a smart move for Clinton? I think it would. For starters, it would energize the Sanders wing of the party like almost nothing else, other than putting Bernie on the ticket.

Second, it would jump start the excitement of a gender breakthrough. Clinton has not produced the thrills that the prospect of the first woman president should produce, because she is kind of old news and a little shopworn. But Warren herself, and an all-women ticket—that would really be something. A double breakthrough!

Wouldn’t it scare off some men? Not much. The men who are not going to vote for Hillary would not be deterred by having a man as her running mate; and there aren’t many more men who would be repulsed merely by the presence of a second woman on the ticket.

Third, it would help in the white working class areas of the Midwest, where the election will be decided. Trump is cleaning up his act, hiring speechwriters, trying to look presidential. If he is the nominee, and the Republicans have, say, a Trump-Kasich ticket, it could be a close election.

Clinton needs shoring up with white working class voters in key states such as Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Warren could help.

But is this a good idea for Warren? What if Clinton put her on the ticket, and then mainly ignored her?

This would be a risk for Warren if she accepted a cabinet position. But don’t forget, the vice president is the one person in a president’s administration who can’t be fired.

Warren has her own national constituency. She is a genius at combining an astute inside game with a superb outside game. If Vice President Warren pitched an idea at President Hillary Clinton, and Clinton was lukewarm, Warren is entirely capable of going out and making speeches.

And what about her Senate seat? In the past, the idea of Warren as VP has been seen as a nonstarter because Massachusetts Republican Governor Charlie Baker would get to fill the seat and the new Senate is likely to be Democratic or Republican by a vote or two either way; every seat counts.

But there is more to it than that. Massachusetts law requires a special election within 145 to 160 days after a Senate seat is vacated. So Baker’s interim appointee would serve for less than six months before the Democrats in deep blue Massachusetts took back the seat.

This idea of course is far from a done deal. It’s a trial balloon. Warren has not endorsed either Sanders or Clinton, and it will take a lot of fancy footwork for Sanders not to be offended, for Warren not to feel used just for her symbolic value, and for Clinton as presumed nominee to make a final decision.

But having raised this idea, Clinton now runs the risk of looking like a trimmer if she eventually goes with someone centrist such as Virginia Senator Tim Kaine or another conventional choice.

Clinton, more than anything, needs a shot of excitement and enthusiasm. Warren would surely bring that. And the fact that Warren herself has not closed the door is doubly interesting.

Whadda year!

New State Restrictions Force Pro-Choice Advocates into Familiar Battle Zone

When Indiana’s Republican Governor Mike Pence signed a measure that placed controversial limits on abortion, the law’s constitutional implications likely had little bearing on his decision. Nevertheless, Pence’s move comes as some anti-abortion governors and state lawmakers devise even more severe restrictions and force reproductive-rights advocates onto familiar turf in state and federal courtrooms.

Calling the state law “unprecedented and unconstitutional,” the ACLU has filed suit against Indiana in federal court. The state abortion law now bans doctors from performing abortions on women who seek to end pregnancies on the basis of “the fetus’s race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, or diagnosis or potential diagnosis of the fetus having Down syndrome or any other disability”; mandates that abortion providers have admitting privileges at local hospitals; demands that all remains be buried or cremated; and requires that women visit their abortion provider to undergo an ultrasound and listen to the fetus’s heartbeat at least 18 hours before actually having an abortion, a provision that would complicate many women’s lives since only four of Indiana’s 92 counties have clinics that offer the procedure.

“The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly stressed that a woman, not the state, is to determine whether or not to obtain an abortion,” said Ken Falk, the Indiana ACLU’s legal director, in a statement about the lawsuit.

The Guttmacher Institute, a national research and policy nonprofit that promotes reproductive rights and women’s health, notes that since 2010, states have enacted about 300 laws restricting abortions, the most passed in any five-year period since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling. In 2015, about 400 abortion restrictions were introduced in state legislatures, mostly in the South and the Midwest.

According to Kelly Baden, the director of state advocacy for the Center for Reproductive Rights, a global legal advocacy organization that focuses on reproductive-rights issues, state legislators have already introduced more than 330 bills in the first quarter of 2016 that contain some form of restriction on reproductive health and rights.

With lawmakers spending more time campaigning, “election years should be lighter [for new bills],” says Baden. “But we are not seeing this.” But unless pro-choice lawmakers gain decisive majorities in state houses, reproductive-rights advocates in anti-abortion states may have to continue to resort to legal action.

Pro-choice advocates have won some significant legal victories. Last month, a federal court permanently blocked an Alabama law that required all doctors performing abortions in the state to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. Challenges to similar laws are pending in Mississippi, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Wisconsin. In another recent pro-choice win, the Oklahoma Supreme Court struck down a petition that would have placed a statewide referendum on abortion access on the November ballot.

National pro-choice organizations note that while these rulings protecting abortion rights have been invaluable, lawsuits are time-consuming and expensive. “Part of the [anti-abortion movement’s] strategy is getting the pro-choice side to use up its resources, and litigating cases are a part of that,” says Leslie McGorman, NARAL Pro-Choice America’s deputy policy director. 

“We need to do a better job of conveying the impact of restrictions [like Indiana’s] to the public,” says Baden. “Women shouldn’t have to run to court to defend their constitutional right to an abortion.”


Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that roughly 80 percent of the approximately 300 reproductive-rights bills introduced in 2016 contained restrictions on abortion. In fact, state legislators have introduced more than 330 bills that all contain restrictions on reproductive health and rights. The text has been corrected to reflect this.

DOL Releases Bold New Retirement Investment Protections

Flanked by Democratic allies in Congress on Wednesday, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez unveiled the final version of the long-awaited fiduciary rule, which requires that, like doctors and lawyers, retirement account brokers must act in their clients’ best interest.

“It really puts in place a fundamental principle of consumer protection into the American retirement marketplace, which is that consumers’ best interests must now come before the advisor’s financial interest,” Secretary Perez declared in a speech at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress.

Advocates of the fiduciary rule argue that the retirement investment industry has become tainted by advisors who are incentivized by lucrative fees, commissions, and other monetary rewards to steer clients into inferior retirement investment packages with higher fees and lower returns.

Those types of high fees, one study found, could tack on an additional three years before a worker could retire. Conflicted advice from retirement advisors, advocates say, has cost retirement savers $17 billion per year, sometimes shaving tens of thousands of dollars from an individual’s retirement savings.

The fiduciary rule attempts to address a new reality brought about by the large-scale shift from employer-provided pensions to products like IRAs and 401(k) accounts. It’s a shift that has left many workers—disproportionately blacks, Latinos, and women—in the lurch with no end in sight.

“The regulatory structure that protects people’s investments has not kept up with the changing landscape,” Perez said. “In a world where people are more on their own in making financial decisions, financial advisors are not required to give advice that is not in their clients’ best interest.”

The new rule is a major plank in President Obama’s consumer protection agenda, which was initially spurred by the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Obama called for the Department of Labor to issue the fiduciary rule just over a year ago, saying, “If your business model rests on taking advantage, bilking hardworking Americans out of their retirement money, then you shouldn’t be in business.”

But like many of Obama’s initiatives that rely on his executive power, the rule has faced fierce opposition from Republicans in Congress and the financial services lobby.

Retirement advising companies complained that compliance with the rule would cost the financial services industry lots of money and ultimately limit access to advising services among workers with smaller retirement portfolios. But Secretary Perez said that the Labor Department implemented several changes to initial language that addressed industry concerns, including a last-minute change that stretches out the implementation period. 

Critics have also implied that the rule addresses a problem that doesn’t exist, pushing the administration to provide examples of those who have been hurt by bad retirement advice. Admittedly, the Department of Labor has struggled to do so, highlighting just a couple of individual anecdotes in a Politico story. Retirement experts say that it’s hard for consumers to know when they’re being cheated, especially since a lot of unscrupulous behavior in the industry isn’t technically illegal.

Democrats are calling it a landmark achievement for the administration, and have pledged to fight tooth-and-nail against Republican pledges to overturn the rule in Congress.

“Sometimes government works for the people, and today is one of those days,” Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren proclaimed at the event.

For years, wealthy industry players financed an army of lobbyists and lawyers to try to stop this rule in its tracks, Warren said. “And honestly, some of them will continue to keep fighting. They have 17 billion reasons to keep fighting.” 

“The Full Spectrum of the Republican Party”

In his victory speech Tuesday night after winning the Wisconsin primary, Senator Ted Cruz pointed to his endorsements from former GOP presidential candidates former Texas Governor Rick Perry, Senator Lindsey Graham, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, as proof that he has the “full spectrum of the Republican Party coming together and uniting behind this campaign.”

But what’s most striking about these political figures is how much they have in common. They differ in height, weight, charisma, and personality, but there’s hardly any distance between them when it comes to what they believe about government and public policy. On a scale of one to ten—with ten being the most reactionary—every candidate rates an eight or above.

Here’s where Cruz and those ex-rivals who now support him stand on the major issues facing the country:

·       Obamacare—against

·       Raising the minimum wage—against

·       Raising taxes on the super-rich—against

·       Overturning Citizens United—against

·       Abortion and Planned Parenthood—against

·       Same-sex marriage—against

·       President Obama’s executive actions to protect Dreamers and the parents of children who are citizens or legal permanent from deportation—against

·       Strengthening regulations on Wall Street—against

·       Tightening gun control laws—against

·       Allowing Syrian refugees to enter the U.S.—against

·       Eliminating the death penalty—against

·       Promoting green jobs—against

·       Reducing military spending—against

·       Making voter registration easier—against

·       Labor unions—against

The “full spectrum” of Cruz supporters covers an extremely narrow ideological niche that is out of sync with the vast majority of the American public.

Supreme Court Case That Almost Busted Public-Sector Unions is Dead. What Now?

A dark cloud that’s loomed large over public-sector unions has cleared away—for now.

The Supreme Court split 4-4 Tuesday in its decision on Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a case centering on the legality of “fair-share” fees, which non-union members are required to pay to cover collective bargaining costs.

And while the decision came down Tuesday, Friedrichs’s fate was largely sealed when Justice Antonin Scalia unexpectedly died in February, ending the conservative majority on the high court.

Predictably, labor leaders were relieved, yet reserved.

“Millions of working people who understand the importance of their unions in bettering their lives and the well-being of their communities are breathing a sigh of relief,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement. “Even so, we know this fight is far from over. Just as our opponents won't stop coming after us, we will continue full speed ahead in our effort to mobilize our members and their neighbors around a shared vision to reclaim the promise of America.”

The case was highly controversial. Labor advocates contended that fair-share fees are crucial to keeping public-sector unions afloat; conservatives say it’s an affront to free speech. Friedrichs was pushed by right-wing legal activists in an attempt to overturn the 40 years of legal precedent that stood between public-sector unions and more restrictive right-to-work laws.

As the case moved through the federal courts, the larger public sector unions scrambled to shore up the rank-and-file and recruit non-members. But despite last-ditch efforts, labor leaders like Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry were less than optimistic.

“By next summer, we’re going to lose another two million because of a Supreme Court case for the public sector where public sector workers’ organizations will no longer be allowed to have union shops,” Henry said. “Everyone will be a voluntary member. And I think that means another chunk of the movement will be gone.”

But that all turned on a dime with Justice Scalia’s death. Now public-sector unions are suffering from strategic whiplash and are likely still sorting out how to proceed now that the current legal threat has been thwarted.

However, Friedrichs isn’t the only case attacking fair-share fees, and unions more broadly. There are a handful of similar cases currently working through the courts that focus on the same argument as Friedrichs—that mandatory union fees are unconstitutional. Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, who launched one of those cases, said yesterday that he fully expects his case to reach the Supreme Court.

Those circumstances make the current Supreme Court confirmation battle all the more important. President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, is largely viewed as a pro-labor judge who would hesitate to overturn 40 years of precedent.

If Garland is able to win confirmation from the Senate or if a Democratic president gets a liberal justice on the high court, then unions will rest easier with a liberal Supreme Court majority and largely pro-labor lower courts.

The real danger for public-sector unions lies with another scenario: a Republican who captures the White House in 2016 and secures the confirmation of a conservative justice, a development that would invite a fresh slate of anti-worker cases.

Lester Thurow, an Economist Ahead of His Time

Lester Thurow, one of the leading economists to challenge American inequality before that view became fashionable, died last week at 77. He spent most of his career at MIT, where he also served as dean of the Sloane School of Management between 1987 and 1993.

Born in Montana, he was a Rhodes Scholar, an avid mountain climber, and a full professor by age 30. And he was a genuinely nice person.

I got to know Les Thurow because we were part of a fairly small cohort of non-Marxian, left-of-center thinkers on economics.

Thurow joined Robert Reich, Ray Marshall, Jeff Faux, Barry Bluestone, and myself in 1986, to found the Economic Policy Institute.

We acted because virtually the entire mainstream economics profession had become something of a commercial for the proposition that markets are almost invariably efficient. Marxian economists, of course, had an entirely different view. But among non-Marxists, Thurow was perhaps the most eminent and well credentialed of those who challenged market verdicts as neither necessarily efficient nor just.

We founded EPI in part because there was a huge hole in the world of think tanks. Before EPI, there were outfits like the American Enterprise Institute on the right and the Brookings Institution in the center but no real left-liberal institution committed to high quality research.

Thinking about the years when Thurow was a well known public intellectual, one recalls what an uphill climb it was to get the American economics profession to take seriously the proposition that market outcomes could be wrong. Thurow lived long enough to see inequality become the leading economic issue.

He was criticized by many in the economics profession not only for his views, but for his insistence on writing clear prose that could be read by a broad audience. For this he was damned in some quarters as a mere popularizer.

His first major book, The Zero Sum Society, was written in 1980, a time when the economy was in big trouble from stagflation and the run-up of energy prices, and widening inequality first began to show up in the statistics. Thurow’s ingenious argument was that the economy was stuck because any reform that would make the economy as a whole better off would make some people worse off. Hence, the zero-sum conundrum.

And of course, the people who stood to lose were mainly the wealthy and the powerful. Thus was reform blocked.

The solution? More public sector intervention to override failed market outcomes—more reliance on democracy.

Thurow was writing at time when the conventional wisdom went in the opposite direction, but he stood his ground. Today, his views have a lot more company. His next book, Dangerous Currents: the State of Economics, published in 1983, was a careful critique of mainstream economic principles.

Thurow, like John Kenneth Galbraith or Albert Hirschman, was something of a loner in his profession. His method was historical and institutional, not rigorously quantitative. Though he had students, there was not really a Thurow “school” of economics.

Nonetheless, in the work of EPI and in the much broader legions of today’s economists who recognize the inefficiencies of markets, the role of political power, and the needless extremes of inequality, Thurow has plenty of company.

Group Drafts Secret Proposal to End Taxpayer-Funded Veteran Care

Deliberations by the Department of Veterans Affairs Commission on Care, the congressionally mandated group planning the future of the Veterans Health Administration, have, as The American Prospect has reported, become increasingly marred by controversy. When the 15-member commission met in Washington in mid-March, another furor erupted. A recently uncovered proposal to privatize the VHA set off a firestorm of protest within the veterans community.

Several members of the commission learned that seven of their colleagues had been secretly meeting to draft a proposal to totally eliminate the Veterans Health Administration by 2035 and turn its taxpayer-funded functions over to the private sector. Those commissioners dubbed the plan “The Strawman Document.”

The authors of the Strawman Document insist that the VHA is so “seriously broken” that “there is no efficient path to repair it.” Although the commission’s work is supposed to be data-driven and done by the all the commissioners together, the faction meeting independently of the full commission has ignored many of the studies that indicated that treatment at the VHA is often better and more cost-effective than the care available in the private sector.

It is not surprising that the Strawman group has chosen to ignore this research—its members have a vested interest in dismantling the VHA. The Strawman authors include Darin S. Selnick, a part-time employee of the Koch-funded group Concerned Veterans for America, as well as Stewart M. Hickey, a former leader of Amvets, a group that broke away from a coalition of large veterans service organizations because of its support for Concerned Veterans’  interest in dismantling  the VHA.

The Strawman authors acknowledge that private-sector health-care systems do not provide integrated care, high-quality mental-health treatment, or many other specialized services that the VHA currently delivers. But if the VHA became an insurer—paying the bills instead of providing direct care—it could spend more money trying to “incentivize” providers to give better care in these areas.

Private hospitals would also get federal funding to run what are now VHA Centers of Excellence, which treat epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and other conditions veterans face.

Representatives of veterans service organizations (VSOs) believe the secret meetings of the Strawman group may violate the Sunshine and Federal Advisory Committee Acts, as well as the commission’s agreed-upon processes. The commission had set up working groups to consider key VHA issues. Unlike the secret Strawman meetings, the subcommittee members were well known by all members and the public. Meeting times were posted, and discussion minutes were recorded. 

The Strawman faction engaged in another end run around their colleagues when they met with Republican Representative Jeff Miller, chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and Speaker Paul Ryan. One representative of a major VSO, who asked not to be identified, observes: “If the authors requested the meeting with the House leadership, that constitutes lobbying. If they were invited by the House leadership, that constitutes more interference into the commission’s deliberations. Either way, this meeting, funded by the U.S. taxpayer, was totally inappropriate.”

“The plan does represent a complete deflection of responsibility to subject these men and women to an alternative ‘payer-only’ system of care that not only is ill-equipped to absorb the demand but is also, at best, minimally equipped in terms of expertise and the ability to coordinate such complex care over a veteran's lifetime,” says Sherman Gillums Jr., acting executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America.

Before the Strawman proposal became public, Disabled American Veterans (DAV) launched Setting the Record Straight—a social media campaign against proposals that would privatize some or all of the VHA. Garry Augustine, DAV’s Washington executive director told the Prospect, “Although we have voiced our views about VA health care for the future, it seems many on the commission are committed to [doing] away with the VA health-care system and turn veterans over to private health care, which we believe would result in uncoordinated and fragmented care for veterans.”

The commission would do far better to consider the views of VA Undersecretary of Health David Shulkin and commission member Phillip Longman. Shulkin has argued for strengthening the VHA and giving it a more active role in directing and coordinating any care veterans receive in the private-sector system. Longman believes that the VHA should serve all veterans—not just those with service-related conditions or those who are low-income veterans.

House Veterans Affairs Chairman Blasts Health-Care Commission Member

The VA Commission on Care, the 15-member bipartisan body created by Congress to make recommendations about the future of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), has been meeting for months and plans to publish its findings in June. Until this week, Congress had not interfered with the commission’s supposedly independent deliberations.

That all changed on March 14 when Republican Congressman Jeff Miller, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman and a staunch advocate of privatizing the Veterans Health Administration, wrote an angry letter to the commission chairwoman Nancy Schlichting. In this unprecedented missive, Miller personally attacked Phillip Longman, a commission member who has advocated not only preserving but strengthening the veterans’ health-care agency in part by eliminating its cumbersome eligibility requirements, and expanding health-care services to veterans’ families. 

Miller accused Longman, a Washington Monthly senior editor and author of a sympathetic appraisal of the VHA, Best Care Anywhere: Why VA Health Care is Better than Yours, of personally editing a recent article by former Wall Street Journal reporter Alicia Mundy. Mundy criticized Miller for his singular focus on VHA wait times and his insistence that 40 veterans had died because they were waiting for care. She also detailed the role that Miller and other congressional conservatives have played in the Koch brothers’ campaign to privatize veterans’ health care. Mundy warned that private hospital systems, which have representatives on the commission, are “circling like vultures over the idea of dividing up the VA’s multibillion-dollar budget.”

Miller said Longman helped spread “blatantly false propaganda in an attempt to minimize the wait-times scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs” through the Mundy magazine article. Longman “either believes the article’s false claims or he—as an editor of the piece—signed off on them knowing they were untrue,” Miller wrote. He warned the commissioners “to take anything Longman says with an extremely large grain of salt.”

A subsequent Washington Monthly blog post by Paul Glastris, who actually edited Mundy’s article, rebutted Miller’s claims about patient deaths and other issues.  Longman, who is a part-time staff member at the magazine, also reviewed Mundy’s piece but did not edit it. (However, members on the commission, which includes health-care industry executives, veterans’ advocates, and a representative of the Koch brothers-backed Concerned Veterans for America, can continue to perform their professional duties as long as they do not claim to be acting on behalf of or speaking for the commission.)

Veterans advocates say that Miller’s tirade was the first time any of them could remember a congressman attacking a commission member.

Retired Army captain Steve Robertson, a former Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee staff director, told The American Prospect that, in his 30 years working on veterans issues, he couldn’t “recall a member of Congress ever instructing members of a commission or advisory group to ignore one of their members.” Robertson said, “Miller is way out of line.” Another representative of a major veterans service organization who did not wish to be identified, called Miller’s letter an attempt to “intimidate an independent commission and politicize their recommendations”

One week later, Miller appeared before the commission and continued his critique of the agency. In his hour-long comments, Miller had nothing good to say about the VHA. He ignored the findings of an independent assessment commissioned by Congress that found that the VHA delivers care that is often superior to the private sector. When commission member Michael Blecker of San Francisco-based Swords to Plowshares tried to defend the VHA’s model of integrated care and worried that many veterans would fall through the cracks of a private health-care system, Miller barely let Blecker finish his comments. The congressman argued that the VHA is “holding veterans inside” the system and must allow them to move into private sector care. Miller concluded by encouraging the commission to offer “bold ideas” on overhauling the system in their upcoming report.

The congressman may want to “empower veterans,” as he terms it. But moving them into a private health-care sector that has primary care physician shortages, coordination of care difficulties, serious wait-time challenges, and hundreds of thousands of deaths due to preventable medical errors poses risks that the commission can ill-afford to ignore.