By Rob Papandrea, Legislative Intern
In Wednesday’s Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing, Senators heard testimony from Mr. Denis McDonough of Wisconsin regarding his nomination and qualifications to serve as VA Secretary in the Biden Administration.
McDonough, 51, served as Chief of Staff to President Obama during his second term. If confirmed, he would be only the second Secretary in the history of the VA to have never served in the Armed Forces. Additionally, McDonough has never served as an administrator of a hospital or in any role directly related to healthcare or services for Veterans. When addressing his experience in his opening testimony, McDonough repeatedly fell back on his history of navigating bureaucracy in government but did not directly speak of any efforts in doing so on behalf of Veterans.
Responding to senators’ questions on his vision for the VA, McDonough often repeated a mantra of prioritizing increasing access and improving outcomes but had very little substantive commentary regarding policy proposals of his own. Of note however, several important topics were mentioned in the limited hearing. In his first few minutes of response, McDonough was asked about sexual harassment in the VA, responding that on his first day as Secretary he would institute a no tolerance policy. McDonough also made vague statements on “rebalancing community care”. When asked to clarify what exactly this meant, he declined to commit to upholding current access standards. Several senators cited concerns over potential plans to close VA facilities, especially those in rural areas and which may serve as the only facility in an entire region. In response, McDonough expressed a desire to keep as many facilities open as possible. Senators were also especially concerned over the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on veterans’ access to care. When asked about his and the President’s plan to vaccinate veterans, McDonough could not give an estimate as to how many doses would be specifically reserved for VA patients.
Perhaps the most poignant and overarching question of the hearing, McDonough was asked several times to explain what exactly differentiates him from previous secretaries. His answer consisted of three main points: his ability to work with other agencies, his desire to ensure the VA is providing all other services to veterans, and his willingness to be held accountable to Congress. In terms of policy or direction, McDonough did not indicate a significant shift away from the status quo on any other particular issue, only outright committing to working with Congress on a myriad of the senators’ respective bills.