Congress demands answers from VA on conferences

It was a classic scene in a House committee room on Wednesday, as officials from the Veterans Affairs Department were run up and down the flagpole by lawmakers in both parties in a dispute over conference spending by the VA.

The battle started earlier this year in the wake of revelations that the General Services Administration spent over $830,000 on one conference in Las Vegas; the VA then made the GSA look like pikers when it was revealed that a pair of VA training conferences in Orlando cost over $6 million combined.

Since then, lawmakers and the VA have been locked in an off-camera struggle to turn over information about the VA’s conference spending, with Veterans Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL) accusing the VA of dragging its feet on 66 different requests from the panel.

“Have you or anyone at the table been directed to withhold or delay the transmission of information to this committee?” Miller asked in a soft, but stern voice.

“We are absolutely committed to Congressional oversight,” said the VA’s W. Scott Gould, who might have had a couple of stiff drinks in the aftermath of the bipartisan assault on his agency’s work.

“On behalf of the entire committee, I ask again,” Miller said slowly, with the feel of a father who is giving his teenage kid one more chance to give the right answer before there is some kind of louder verbal explosion.

“We have provided a constant flow of information to this committee,” Gould asserted, drawing raised eyebrows as Miller ticked off the different cost estimates that have been given to lawmakers on how much the VA spent last year on conferences.

“The best and more current estimate that we have are the numbers that you cited, the 86.5,” said another VA official of the latest $86.5 million figure from the VA, though it left lawmakers wondering why it took four different reviews to get to that number.

“There is a culture at the VA that doesn’t put the veterans first,” complained Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX), who said videos of dancing bureaucrats in Orlando brought back memories of the GSA conference in Vegas.

“I don’t want you testifying about this kind of crap,” Flores told the VA’s Gould.

Gould acknowledged the Orlando story had been embarrassing, but he took more flak from members of both parties who wanted to know why so few people had been forced out.

If you missed some of the videos from those gatherings, check this one that was released a few months ago at federaltimes.com.

As the hearing ended, Rep. Miller said the “truce is over” between the Veterans Committee and the VA, as lawmakers vowed to keep the heat on the agency.

Will that happen? Or will lawmakers move on to other issues?

That is what oversight is all about. We’ll see if the Congress keeps its focus or not.