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Pelosi Vetoes Obama. Media Ignores It.

Dennis Byrne 26 March 2009 No Comment

All too little attention has been paid to President Barack Obama’s shocking plan to force private insurance companies to pay for the treatment of military veterans who have suffered service-connected disabilities and injuries.

For most of the media—and, consequently, the public—the plan briefly flashed like heat lightning in the summer sky and soundlessly disappeared. But the very existence of the plan, and the story of how it bit the dust, raises serious questions about the Obama administration’s political wisdom, its ability to govern and whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is running things.

The astonishing proposal raised an uproar among veterans’ groups who feared that Purple Heart veterans could end up holding the bag after taking a bullet for their country. Also astonishing was the way Pelosi squashed the plan, literally overruling the president only hours after Obama affirmed his commitment to it.

Further, the plan’s sudden appearance and its even quicker demise casts doubts on major media competence or fairness. As news stories go, its importance at least equals, if not exceeds, last year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning revelations about deplorable conditions for wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Certainly, if former President George W. Bush had hatched the idea, it would have been splashed all over the front page of the Washington Post and NBC news anchor Brian Williams would have declared it “alarming.”

The plan had been quietly simmering within the Obama administration without much, if any, media notice. Consequently, little is known about the plan’s details, other than responsibility for paying for combat or service-related disabilities and injuries would be shifted away from the Veterans Administration, where it has forever resided, to private insurers.

When veterans groups got wind of it, they—not the media—brought it to the public’s attention. In testimony the week of March 8, House and Senate veterans affairs committee and the House Budget Committee, the groups denounced it. Among their objections: The government, not private insurance companies, sends members of the armed forces into harm’s way; maximum insurance coverage limits could be reached through treatment of just service-related problems, leaving the rest of the family without coverage, and businesses might become reluctant to hire veterans. Still, the story did not raise much media interest.

On Monday, March 16, leaders of 11 prominent veterans organizations met personally with Obama in the White House to try to dissuade him from proceeding. He was unmoved. Said a statement from the group issued on PRNewswire immediately after the meeting: “It became apparent during our discussion today that the President intends to move forward with this unreasonable plan. He says he is looking to generate $540-million by this method, but refused to hear arguments about the moral and government-avowed obligations that would be compromised by it.”

Frustrated, the leaders marched to the other end of Pennsylvania Ave. to meet with Speaker Pelosi. Mere hours later, Pelosi—not the White House—announced that the Obama administration was killing the plan. Said she, quite disingenuously, “President Obama listened to the genuine concerns expressed by the veteran service organizations regarding the option of billing service-connected injuries to veterans’ insurance companies. Based on the respect President Obama has for veterans and the principle concerns of our veteran leaders, the president made the decision that combat wounds should not be billed through their insurance policies.” Requiscat in Pace

I would have loved to have heard the heated phone exchanges between Pelosi’s office and the president or his staff. Undoubtedly, she told them that any such plan would be dead upon arrival in the House, and that they were boneheads for even raising it.

Clearly, Obama stumbled politically by taking on one of the country’s most powerful lobbies. He also should have been shamed by Pelosi’s veto of an executive branch study before it even gets off the ground. A bigger issue now is: Has this episode set the stage for the Obama administration ceding executive powers to the legislative branch, or more precisely, Pelosi and Reid, and what are the traditional balance-of-powers consequences? Has the election of the inexperienced Obama signaled to congressional leaders that now is the time to reclaim the powers they believe President George W. Bush had usurped?

More important are the substantive implications: Who knows, maybe Obama’s idea has significant merit. Aside from the fact that it sounds like something that Bush might have proposed (quasi privatization of veterans benefits), it is worth a debate over whether the private sector can provide better service than the often-criticized VA. A $540-million savings should not be sniffed at, and that, in itself, is reason enough for a public debate. Is there another way to save that much money, without degrading veterans’ rights and benefits?

The way the issue was handled, however, has closed the debate, certainly for now and possibly years to come. Blame Pelosi for that; she gave cover to a powerful special interest (of which, as a veteran, I am a part) to control public policy-making. Not many politicians have the courage to remind organized veterans that they are receiving public monies; it is not theirs alone. Citizens and taxpayers have a right to participate in those decisions.

For Obama’s part, this fiasco is symptomatic of an administration hell-bent to change the world in a flash, with a blizzard of unfocused, unsharpened plans. Obama has been rushing impetuously, if not rashly, into major policy decisions that impact every phase of American life. For Obama, this speed is a virtue, allowing him to ignore the more lasting consequences, such as increasing the public debt to $11 trillion (excluding social security and Medicare) in record time. If Obama had not been so headstrong, perhaps the veterans’ issue could have been properly and publicly debated, on its merits. Thanks to Obama’s recklessness, it won’t.

Dennis Byrne is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer

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