The VA — Why One of Our Largest Bureaucracies is Critical to Progressive Causes

This is the first in a series of articles about implementing progressive policies through the lens of the Department of Veteran Affairs.

Will Woldenberg, NLC Philadelphia

In the summer of 1930, President Herbert Hoover was under assault. Black Tuesday, still the most devastating stock market crash in history, had precipitated what would become the Great Depression. The American people had been burnt in the crash and, now distrustful of financial instruments and institutions, stopped borrowing. The lack of lending by banks combined with a stronger dollar to depress consumer spending.

Hoover was also dismayed by Congress as they bastardized his attempt to protect farmers through agricultural tariffs into the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Bill, a legislative act he perceived to be so dangerous to the global economy that he called it “vicious, extortionate, and obnoxious.” But pressured by his party, he signed the bill into law early in the summer. His fears were quickly realized when allied countries like Canada applied retaliatory tariffs, which led to a long-term reduction in imports and exports in excess of 50%. Although Hoover didn’t know it yet, the worst of his presidency was still to come. This included a landslide defeat to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and a public eyesore when Gen. Douglas MacArthur used military force to break-up the “Bonus Army,” a group of nearly 43,000 marchers demanding that the federal government provide immediate payment on bonds that weren’t scheduled to mature until 1945. MacArthur, in a trademark insubordinate attitude toward the commander-in-chief that would eventually to lead to his removal by Harry S. Truman, ignored multiple orders from Hoover to not assault the protesting veterans. Instead, he rationalized to his forces that he believed that the veterans seeking early payments on government bonds to be a communist threat to the country, a comment which led then-Major Dwight D Eisenhower to tell his biographer “I told that dumb son-of-a-bitch not to go down there.” 55 veterans were injured, more than 130 were arrested, and the incident was used to destroy Hoover’s political reputation.

Still, Hoover was a President and the actions of any POTUS have long-term consequences that take generations to understand the impact. Hoover, a conservative Republican focused on a more efficient government with limited authority, may have unknowingly provided modern progressives with a pathway to their most ambitious goals.

In July 1930, President Hoover signed what was considered to be a minor Executive Order (EO 5398), a directive to fulfill his campaign promise to consolidate government agencies and increase their efficiency. This EO combined the Bureau of Pensions, the National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, and the Veteran’s Bureau into a single federal administration called the Veterans Administration.

58 years later, nearly one-third of the American population was eligible for some type of veteran benefits. Congress determined that such a large agency required a leader with access to the President and in 1988, the Department of Veteran Affairs act was adopted, and signed by President Ronald Reagan just before the 1988 election.

Over time, the VA has grown in terms of budget and manpower, and is now one of the largest cabinet offices in the United States. And many of the issues promoted today by progressives came from policies implemented through the VA — single-payer healthcare and the public option, college subsidization by the federal government, home-loan guarantees. For progressives, few federal agencies are more central to the long-term vision of societal reform.

Over a series of articles, I will review the principal programs of the VA, how they relate to progressive causes, and what it would take to expand them beyond the VA. I will also attempt to offer comprehensive budget solutions under a Democratic President and moderately-progressive legislature under Democratic control.

The series will cover five specific areas of focus:

1. Understanding the Budget– Before reviewing the primary benefit programs, we must first breakdown the VA budget by line item and expected future expenditures, while also understanding the differences in mandatory spending, discretionary spending, and interest on the national debt.

2. Education — A review of the GI Bill, including how it was approved, what it excluded (hint: minorities), and how a comprehensive education bill could implement a similar program for state schools within the U.S. while avoiding political and implementation pitfalls.

3. Health care — With more than 1,200 health care facilities around the world, the Veterans Health Administration is the largest integrated health system in the US. We’ll explore the history and challenges of veteran’s health care and explore how the VHA can help and hurt progressive causes of Medicare-for-All.

4. Disability — the progressive community is driven by people championing many causes but few are as organized, driven, and as effective as our brothers and sisters in the disabled community. We’ll review the VA’s history on programs that benefit disabled veterans and how they can be implemented across the country.

5. Putting it all together — After completing a review of what I’ve determined to be the three “tent-pole” programs of the VA as it relates to progressive causes, we’ll analyze the realistic federal solutions that can better improve educational opportunities, health care, and disability programs for all Americans.

The first article will focus on the budget of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Keep an eye out for it in August.

Will Woldenberg is the founder and president of Entegrit, a management consulting veteran-owned small business (VOSB) and benefit corporation (B-Corp) in Philadelphia that is devoted to empowering people, organizations, and communities of integrity to create a more balanced and stable society. An NLC Fellow from the Philadelphia chapter, he continues to serve as an officer in the Army Reserve.