Guest Host: Susan Page

U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and Veterans Affairs Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel are sworn in before testifying to the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee about wait times veterans face to get medical care May 15, 2014 in Washington, DC.

U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and Veterans Affairs Undersecretary for Health Robert Petzel are sworn in before testifying to the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee about wait times veterans face to get medical care May 15, 2014 in Washington, DC.

In another cabinet shuffle, President Obama plans to nominate San Antonio mayor Julian Castro for housing secretary. Castro will replace Shaun Donovan who’s expected to take over the White House budget office. The president pledges to get to the bottom of problems at Veterans’ hospitals, but did not ask Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign over the scandal. Establishment Republican candidates sweep the Tea Party in the first round of mid-term primaries. And after weeks of internal debate, House Democrats decide to participate in the Republican-led committee to investigate the 2012 Benghazi attacks. A panel of journalists joins guest host Susan Page for analysis of the week’s top national news stories.

Guests

  • Alex Burns senior political reporter, Politico
  • Ron Elving senior Washington editor, NPR.
  • Karen Tumulty national political reporter, The Washington Post.

Watch Live Video

Starting at 10 a.m. May 23, watch a live video of our Domestic News Hour from the studio.

Transcript

  • 10:06:54

    MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's recovering from a cold and will be back next week. President Obama stands by embattled Veteran Secretary Eric Shinseki, but demands answers on alleged misconduct in VA hospitals. Establishment Republicans declare victory in two states' primaries and recalls at General Motors reach an unwelcome high point in company history.

  • 10:07:21

    MS. SUSAN PAGEJoining me for the domestic hour of our Friday News Roundup, Ron Elving of NPR, Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post and Alex Burns of Politico. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 10:07:33

    MR. RON ELVINGGood to be here.

  • 10:07:34

    PAGEWe invite our audience to not only listen to us, but to watch us. We're live streaming on drshow.org. Later in this hour, you can call us, join our conversation. Our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. Send us an email at drshow@wamu.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, Ron, President Obama had a news conference Wednesday to address these allegations of misconduct at VA medical centers. What did the president say?

  • 10:08:04

    ELVINGThe president expressed what might be called a restrained degree of confidence in Gen. Shinseki whom he continually called Rick. I suppose if you wanted to be cynical, you could say that the president was so angry at Rick Shinseki that he agreed to let him stay in his job. I'm not sure how badly the general wants to stay in the job at this point, but he is a good soldier.

  • 10:08:28

    ELVINGHe is, himself, a disabled veteran, lost part of his right foot in Vietnam. I think he has a great deal of understanding for the veterans involved here, but he is going to have to deal with a firestorm of anger around the country among veterans and in Congress where they've already passed a bill in the House to make it much easier to fire somebody if they happen to have the bad luck of being an executive in the veterans administration right now.

  • 10:08:51

    ELVINGAnd there are going to have to be measures taken. You know, there are really several things going on here. Number one, and the most serious thing is the allegation that records were falsified and that people were trying to make their performance look better. The second thing is this story that comes out of Arizona from a whistleblower about 40 people having died while waiting for an appointment to see a doctor.

  • 10:09:12

    ELVINGThat is the juice in this story at this point. That comes from CNN and that's a big story. But then, the other things or the bigger thing is all the things that have been done over the years to save money in the VA making it necessary for veterans to prove that they need help, rather than making it necessary for somebody else to prove that they don't when they think they do.

  • 10:09:33

    PAGEThis story, a lot of it broken by the Arizona Republic, the newspaper in Phoenix. Well, Karen, we are now hearing, not only Republicans calling for Gen. Shinseki's resignation, but also some Democrats.

  • 10:09:46

    MS. KAREN TUMULTYThat's right, including a number of Democratic Senate candidates, including -- so I think that you're going to be hearing this growing louder and louder among Democrats as well as Republicans. The problem here is that I think everyone's first focus is that you've got to figure out what the problem is and how to fix it and to put a confirmation hearing on that, a big fight over the replacement on top of that possibly makes it more difficult to actually solve the problem in the near term.

  • 10:10:20

    PAGEOf course, that's an argument that was made about health and human services during the whole botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act website and one reason some people thought that the secretary there, Kathleen Sebelius kept her job for months, Alex. Were you surprised that Gen. Shinseki, at least at the moment, has not been asked to resign?

  • 10:10:40

    MR. ALEX BURNSI wasn't surprised just 'cause, Susan, I think you've seen this with the president a number of times where when he has someone on his team or who he wants to have on his team, who he has some kind of personal relationship with going back a while, he really does dig in. How many cabinet nominees did he throw overboard before he decided to really get into the trenches with Chuck Hagel, when that nomination looked like it was in such trouble? He did let Kathleen Sebelius stay in that job, you know, I think well past the point where it was politically convenient.

  • 10:11:10

    MR. ALEX BURNSAnd you look back at sort of how early she was with him in the 2008 campaign. Eric Shinseki's a guy who, you know, clearly in the middle of a terrible scandal right now, but there's a reason why you haven't heard John Boehner call for his resignation yet. There's a reason why a lot of the people taking aim at him are Democrats jockeying for political distance from the president rather than Republicans who are really eager to take on a decorated veteran right now.

  • 10:11:34

    PAGEAlthough, I interviewed Bob Dole yesterday. He is maybe the nation's leading veteran, I mean, in a way. A disabled World War II veteran, a five-term senator from Kansas, a leader on veterans issues since he got into politics and the person who introduced Eric Shinseki at his 2009 confirmation hearings, calling him a true American hero. And Senator Dole did not call for Shinseki's resignation, but he did not offer him a kind of full-throated endorsement.

  • 10:12:03

    PAGEHe said that if the investigation shows that he didn't do what he should've done, he ought to go.

  • 10:12:08

    ELVINGYou know, back in the Bush administration years, Dana Priest at The Washington Post did a fabulous series of stories, a disturbing and tragic series of stories, about what was going on at Walter Reid and that lead to some major changes and that lead to what was supposed to be the cleaning up of the VA system and what we were able to do for the veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention all the guys who were still around from World War II and Korea and a lot of Vietnam vets who make up a large part of the population in the VA.

  • 10:12:36

    ELVINGAnd everyone thought that that problem had been so looked at and so cared about that it must have been dealt with. So I think the most disturbing thing here, on Shinseki's watch since he's been there since day one of the Obama presidency, is what has been done to carry forward all of those promises that were made about cleaning up the VA?

  • 10:12:55

    TUMULTYWell, that is sort of the paradox here is that -- in fact, I just went as recently as mid April, the VA released a big survey that they do every year on satisfaction with the system. In fact, and it was higher than it is for patient care among recently-treated people in the VA than it is for people who are in private hospitals. And a number of people, as we were going forward with healthcare overhaul, would argue that the VA system is actually an argument for government involvement in healthcare.

  • 10:13:29

    TUMULTYSo, again, this is a horrific tragedy, but it had come at a time when I think the VA, you know, was feeling like it was actually doing, you know, at least a fairly decent job and most veterans who actually interact, interface with this system had thought that it was doing a decent job.

  • 10:13:47

    PAGESo Alex, is this the kind of issue that could have some impact on the midterm elections in November?

  • 10:13:53

    BURNSYeah, I think anything that drags down the president further than he is right now is really toxic for Democrats. You talk to people in the party and they say, actually they're less worried about Obamacare at this point than they are just about Obama. When you look at sort of the way people view him in the states that really matter in this election, I think, Susan, the bigger sort of effect that this has on the issue debate here is Democrats have been trying for five or six years now to make the case that the American people ought to trust government to have a bigger place in their lives.

  • 10:14:24

    BURNSThat's the big debate over the Affordable Care Act, over banking reform, over environmental regulations, which we're going to get more of this summer, that the government, you know, the government is here and it's here to help. And I think every time there's a story like this or the NSA story or any number of the sort of administrative healthcare.gov, obviously, it makes it a lot harder for the party to make the idea -- to make the case that, you know, the safety net is a really important government function that Republicans would threaten if they were in control of the Senate.

  • 10:14:51

    PAGEAnd, of course, unlike a story like the Benghazi story, it's not one that's got a big partisan split. I mean, there's nobody who does not believe our veterans should receive the care they need.

  • 10:15:04

    TUMULTYAnd the same is true with the IRS scandal, as well. I think this has a resonance, it has the potential to do more damage politically than either of those.

  • 10:15:12

    PAGESo Republicans were cheered this week, Ron, by the results from some of these primaries where establishment Republican candidates, many times incumbents were facing more conservative Tea Party challengers. Tell us what happened.

  • 10:15:25

    ELVINGConvention Republican, surely, were pleased with the results, particularly from Kentucky where there had appeared to be a strong challenge to Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader. Matt Bevin, the guy who was running against him, had money. He had a story to tell. He had a big head of steam and that head of steam seemed to dissipate pretty quickly. He got caught up in side controversies.

  • 10:15:46

    ELVINGAnd let's look at Mitch McConnell. He went out and raised more than a million, excuse me, 10 million, and spent more than $10 million on his primary. Kind of unheard of. But he also out maneuvered his opponent in every conceivable way and, in the end, made a stronger argument for what he could do for Kentucky as an incumbent who might just be the majority leader if Republicans take over in November.

  • 10:16:05

    ELVINGThat was symbolic or emblematic of the results all over the country on Tuesday.

  • 10:16:10

    PAGEAlex, tell us about Georgia.

  • 10:16:12

    BURNSWell, you had a crowded field of Republicans there competing for the open seat of retiring Senator Saxby Chambliss and at the beginning of this cycle, you had Democrats say if we get either one of these two really hard right members of Congress, Paul Brown or Phil Gingrey, they think they have an excellent shot in the general election. Those guys finished fourth and fifth in this primary.

  • 10:16:32

    BURNSAnd the top two finishers were David Perdue, this former Reebok CEO, sort of your classic self-funder, I'm a political outside and I'm not part of the system and I'm here to fix it, and then Jack Kingston, an 11-term member of Congress, most distinguished for appropriating a lot of money for his district and his state. So these are the results you would've expected to from a Republican Senate primary in 2002, not in the Tea Party era.

  • 10:16:57

    PAGEAnd you know, it's such a contrast to the results you saw in 2010 and 2012 when arguing that you were the more electable Republican in the general election, Karen, was not seen as a badge of honor.

  • 10:17:08

    TUMULTYWell, and as a result, the Republicans nominated, over the last two cycles, five candidate who turned out to be not viable in the general election. I mean, if, you know, if they hadn't nominated the people they did in those five states, they would have control of the Senate now.

  • 10:17:27

    PAGESo, you know, I saw some analysis that said, end of the Tea Party. Is that how you take it?

  • 10:17:33

    BURNSOnly if you think of the Tea Party as a party. It's never really been a party in the conventional sense. It was shorthand that we all used, ad makers, activists, journalist, certainly, for an anger, for a very intense feeling in the Republican -- well, let's say in the conservative world of America, some of which is Republican and some of which doesn't consider itself represented by Republicans, but which is clearly conservative and they wanted something other than what they were getting from the election of President Obama, the Democratic Congress in 2008, and also something other than what they saw the Republicans offering and they were intense and angry and focused.

  • 10:18:08

    BURNSAnd the way it fell in a lot of these states, the incumbent Republican didn't see it coming. Richard Luger, for example, in Indiana, Mike Castle in Delaware freely says he didn't anticipate what happened there. The person who should've had the nomination and gotten elected to the Senate didn't see it coming and got beat. That didn't happen this time.

  • 10:18:23

    PAGEYou know, you can argue that the Tea Party lost this battle but has won the war because a lot of these establishment candidates are espousing really conservative Tea Party-friendly kind of views now. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll go to the phones. We'll take your questions or read your emails. Stay with us.

  • 10:20:00

    PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio, Ron Elving, senior Washington editor for NPR, Karen Tumulty, national political reporter for the Washington Post and Alex Burns, senior political reporter for Politico. Let's talk about the issue of same-sex marriage. Man, this is like a train that is rolling down the track. Karen, what did we see happen this week? Three more states moving toward...

  • 10:20:25

    TUMULTYYeah, Utah, Oregon, Pennsylvania and it's all going one direction. And, again, I think that -- when you think of -- it was only ten years ago that there were same-sex marriage ballot initiatives on the ballot in, what, something like 17 states. And every single one of them came down on the antigay marriage side. It's been an extraordinary shift. I think it's been -- it represents where public opinion already is going, especially on a generational level. If you even talk to people like, you know, evangelical leaders and they say they look out in their pews at young people. And they've already lost this battle with them.

  • 10:21:07

    PAGEAlthough we should note that in all three states, these were judicial decisions. None of these involved votes by the electorate.

  • 10:21:15

    BURNSAlthough at the same time you did have the Republican governor of Pennsylvania, who's up for reelection this year, come out and say, you know, I think this decision is likely to stand on appeal so I'm not even going to challenge it. And then next door in New Jersey there wasn't a new decision this week but Governor Chris Christy, potential Republican presidential candidate, announced he was going to reappoint the judge who authored the decision striking down New Jersey's ban on same-sex marriage. That's a pretty remarkable turnaround for just leading members of that party.

  • 10:21:41

    ELVINGJust real quickly, later on this morning in Denver, Colorado the 10th circuit Court of Appeals from the federal system is supposed to issue the first appellate ruling on some of these. It covers Utah and Oklahoma. And we're expecting them to make a decision here that would eventually reach the Supreme Court because we expect the Supreme Court to look at some of these judicial opinions. But it's going to be enormously important what the circuit courts of appeals do and this is the first one weighing in.

  • 10:22:07

    PAGEYou know, one thing that is so interesting about this issue is that on other social issues where the courts have ruled, on -- I'm thinking about school desegregation for instance or abortion rights, there's -- it's fueled a fury. It hasn't settled the issue. But on -- in this issue, Karen, it seems like these court decisions are things that people are accepting and adopting.

  • 10:22:30

    TUMULTYAnd even on this issue, as recently as when was it, in Iowa just, you know, not even a decade ago, it did fuel a huge backlash. And that is what is remarkable here is that that is not happening.

  • 10:22:44

    PAGEYeah, interesting. Well, let's talk a bit for a moment about Benghazi. We refer just briefly to that controversy earlier in this hour. Long debates, Alex, by Democrats in the House over whether to join this investigative panel, that now they've decided to do so.

  • 10:22:59

    BURNSThey did. Nancy Pelosi appointed five Democrats to this select committee, including Tammy Duckworth, the veterans from Illinois, a couple members from the west coast, Adam Schiff, Adam Smith, who had been really involved in military issues. And, you know, part of the thinking here -- at least part of the thinking here is that you're going to have this Republican Chairman Trey Gowdy from South Carolina hauling in members of the administration and former members of the administration like Hillary Clinton for depositions and public interrogations.

  • 10:23:28

    BURNSThat there was this idea that maybe we can just undercut the committee by not participating in it. And at the end of the day, the thinking that really reigned was Elijah Cummings from Maryland who's going to be the ranking member on this committee just saying, we've got to be on the field if the Republicans are going to be coming our guys.

  • 10:23:41

    PAGESo do you think Hillary Clinton will be called to testify?

  • 10:23:44

    ELVINGHard to imagine that she wouldn't be. She was Secretary of State at the time and a lot of the focus here is going to be on what kind of security arrangements were made and what kind of care was taken with whether or not an ambassador could do what was done in this particular case, which is going out beyond his security patrol.

  • 10:24:01

    TUMULTYAnd it's -- you know, and the reporting suggests that in fact it was the Clinton people who went and argued with the House leadership that yes, there did need to be some Democrats on this committee that, you know, it couldn't be essentially mute on one side. If she does get called to testify, I suspect that, you know, we're not going to see the same sort of performance that we saw from her the first time where, you know, she was saying what different did it make. I mean, at this point it's -- I think she's going to be in a very different footing herself.

  • 10:24:31

    PAGEWhat do you think the risks are for Hillary Clinton in this investigation, Alex?

  • 10:24:36

    BURNSYou know, I think it's sort of a total tossup in my view whether this is a risk versus reward proposition for her because, you know, when has a House investigation to the Clintons ever backfired on Republicans, right? But look, if she goes in there and gives, as Karen said, the same kind of combative performance that she did last time, I do think this is an issue that has legs just in terms of, you know, whether the American people view her record in the State Department as one of sort of responsible sober leadership, or whether they really just view her at this point as an entirely political figure.

  • 10:25:09

    BURNSBecause when she was in state, even after the 2008 campaign before she went to state, was still in the U.S. Senate, the farther away from politics Hillary Clinton is the more the American people like her, right. So as long as she can stay kind of above the fray and present herself almost as just this, you know, dull technocrat kind of at the State Department, that's when she's been at her best.

  • 10:25:32

    ELVINGYou know, it's a star opportunity really for her when you think back to the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987, there was this thought at the time that this was going to be a big slam dunk for the Democrats. Because they really had Ronald Reagan where they wanted him and they were going to embarrass him and they were going to embarrass the Republicans. And instead what we got from that was the creation of a star in Oliver North, of all people. And, you know, these things -- these big show trials, they can bounce a lot of funny ways.

  • 10:25:55

    PAGEI covered those hearings and I remember Oliver North in the pictures of him, raising his hand, taking the oath, that made him look like a pretty heroic figure. You're from San Antonio, Karen. We've got the Mayor of San Antonio heading this way this afternoon for an announcement to join the president's cabinet.

  • 10:26:13

    TUMULTYThat's right. Julian Castro, who is one of the great rising stars of politics. And one of the few sort of up and coming younger generation Latinos that the Democrats have. On the Republican side we have people like Ted Cruz, Marko Rubio, you know, Susana Martinez, Brian Sandoval.

  • 10:26:35

    TUMULTYThis, however, I think is sort of a plan B for Mayor Castro. He had made no secret of the fact that he had actually intended originally to run for governor in 2018 in Texas because the thinking was that the state was shifting demographically. And apparently -- I mean, people close to him have told me certainly that Wendy Davis, the Democratic nominee in Texas, her kind of weak performance so far has kind of convinced everyone that that date of that political shift in the state is further off than Democrats had hoped it was.

  • 10:27:14

    TUMULTYJulian Castro in Texas was in the position, as one person said to me, of being, you know, an all star playing on a losing team. So this will give him, I think, a national platform, a national -- and potentially, you know, it could lead to another cabinet post. It could even lead to being on the ticket for a Hillary Clinton or some other Democratic nominee in the future.

  • 10:27:36

    PAGEAlthough, you know, you think about the current head secretary, I'm not sure that most Americans could come up with his name. Who is he, Alex?

  • 10:27:43

    BURNSIt's Shaun Donovan, Susan, so I did come prepared for the pop quiz. But, look, I think that if you look at what's happening in another obscure cabinet department right now, the VA, it underscores what an incredible risk this actually is for Castro. This notion if you take a dull cabinet position, sit it out for a couple years, hey, maybe you end up as vice president.

  • 10:28:02

    BURNSYou know, lord only knows what's going on at the lower to mid levels of HUD that a House Republican investigation might uncover under Secretary Castro's watch. He's got this golden thing going on in San Antonio. And it's true, if you want to run nationally you got to get a little higher than mayor first. But gosh, I don't know, I mean, to me there's a pretty good argument for just waiting it out in Texas. He's a young guy so if it's 15 years until he's governor, could still be a pretty young president.

  • 10:28:27

    ELVINGWell, on the other hand, you know, you raise this prospect. Jack Kemp went from congress where he was a star, and of course he had been a football star, and then they sent him to HUD. And kind of crickets after that because he did run for president but all the old buzz was gone and he just really didn't fly as a presidential candidate. He came back much later as a vice presidential nominee. Didn't make it in that regard either.

  • 10:28:49

    ELVINGI'm not sure HUD is a great launching pad, but they really wanted to get another Hispanic in the cabinet. They really wanted to position this guy to at least be in the conversation to be Hillary Clinton's running mate.

  • 10:28:58

    TUMULTYAnd he had made no secret of the fact that his own preference would've been to have been education secretary because his big legacy issue in San Antonio was getting the city to raise the sales tax to fund pre-K.

  • 10:29:11

    PAGEMeanwhile, Shaun Donovan is not out of work. We expect him to be nominated to be budget director replacing who, Alex?

  • 10:29:20

    BURNSOh gosh.

  • 10:29:23

    PAGEMatthews Burwell.

  • 10:29:26

    BURNSWell, current...

  • 10:29:27

    PAGESo as budget director, yes.

  • 10:29:28

    BURNS...yes, of course, naturally.

  • 10:29:29

    PAGEYes. I didn't actually mean that to sound (word?) . You get the HUD secretary and yet not the (unintelligible) .

  • 10:29:34

    BURNSThe job currently vacant, right, not ousting somebody. I'm just going to call this a technicality and we can move on from there. But, look, I think that this is -- we've seen this is an enormously important job in this administration. If you go back to some of the biggest stars actually of the Obama cabinet, back to Peter Orszag, so maybe -- I mean, we can -- there are a lot of words that people in Washington will use for Peter Orszag.

  • 10:29:56

    BURNSBut Jack Lew -- that when the main flashpoints between the administration and congress are all around spending and budgeting, this is actually a job of tremendous consequence, the way maybe it wasn't a couple years ago during the Bush Administration.

  • 10:30:10

    PAGELet's go to the phones and let some of our listeners join our conversation with their calls or questions. Let's talk first to Tom. He's calling us from Pittsburgh. Hi, Tom.

  • 10:30:19

    TOMHi. Thank you. I want to talk about the VA for a minute and, I mean, the root cause of the problems at the VA. And I know that there's an investigation going on. Certainly upper management is a problem. It's way too top-down, not listening to staff and so forth. But I think we're going to find that funding is an issue. And of course the funding comes from congress. And I'm wondering if, you know, with the congressional hearings that it's going to kind of bounce right back to congress, although I doubt they're going to let that happen, but I think funding is an issue.

  • 10:31:04

    TOMBut I'm a veteran and I worked in an army hospital. I am a retired officer. And I have Medicare part A & B and Tricare. And I've never used the VA and I never will. And there's probably a lot of us out there. And I want to make the comment that if we took all the funding for the VA and bought health care from existing civilian facilities and so forth, would we be a lot better off?

  • 10:31:42

    TOMWe have an over capacity situation in many of our cities in this country. Pittsburgh certainly we have over capacity. And isn't that money a lot better spent on facilities, physicians, etcetera that are working?

  • 10:31:59

    PAGEAll right. Tom, thank you so much for your call. Thank you for your service. We have an emailer who raises a similar question. Bruce writes us, "Until congress is willing to fully fund the VA at the current level of need, these problems will continue." Is this fundamentally an issue of funding do you think?

  • 10:32:14

    TUMULTYI think funding is in there but the fact is there was -- if you believe the allegations, there was also fraud and misconduct being committed, and especially falsifying these records. So yes, funding is likely to come up as an issue but I think that, again, the misconduct is going to probably be the overriding storyline here.

  • 10:32:37

    PAGEAnd here's an email from Randy. He writes us from Baltimore. He says, "It is my understanding that most veterans have a much more favorable view on the VA than that found in the general population. I'm a vet and I know that I have very favorable reviews -- very favorable views on the VA system. If anything, makes me -- it makes me an advocate for single-payer health care."

  • 10:32:57

    TUMULTYYeah, in fact, I can read you the statistics that were just released for 2013. And again, this is a big, big survey the VA does every year. And the satisfaction for in-patient care in the VA was 84 percent, and 82 percent for outpatient care.

  • 10:33:14

    PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850. Let's take another call. We'll go to Bonny calling us from Rochester, N.Y. Bonny, thanks for joining us.

  • 10:33:28

    BONNYYes, hi. You know, I wanted to make a comment about the veterans administration situation. And my comment is also concerning generally all public services and public employees, both state and federal level. So the comment is, on the one hand with the veteran situation, of course, if there's been misconduct and there's been stuff that's really harmed patients going on that has to be dealt with and whatever the causes.

  • 10:33:55

    BONNYBut I also want to put in a voice for the fact that I notice with a lot of the discussions around veterans and other public employee services, which on the one hand have been attacked a lot by people looking to find excuses to attack them. The employees -- the representatives of employees, the labor people, the union representatives, are hardly ever present in any of these kind of discussions.

  • 10:34:19

    BONNYSo I actually wrote something yesterday in an email when this subject came up on NPR on Diane Rehm yesterday and, you know, saying the same thing. I really would like to see the representatives from the labor organizations present at these kinds of discussions at all levels of government because this is a -- you know, public service is a huge issue reflecting many things. And people, when you have them come, they actually know a lot about what's going on.

  • 10:34:48

    PAGEBonny, thank you so much for your call. Alex.

  • 10:34:50

    BURNSYou know, I think it's interesting how quickly the VA debate actually has become a labor issue, although not exactly in the way that Bonny's describing. This bill that's before congress that Ron mentioned earlier that the House passed, the big contentious point now being debated on the hill is how easy it should be for somebody like the VA secretary to fire career civil servants who are unionized and who are protected by all kinds of statutory job regulations from being fired for misconduct on the job.

  • 10:35:18

    BURNSSo there are folks certainly on the Republican side and some Democrats who support this bill who say, part of the problem here is public labor, that these folks in the senior executive service who are immune from the kind of oversight the political appointees get, I think you're going to see, you know, certainly there's an argument for labor representatives being more represented at different levels of government. I think you're going to hear even more furiously the argument being made that they should be less represented.

  • 10:35:42

    PAGEYou know, Ron, this bill passed the House almost unanimously, not quite. What are its prospects in the Senate?

  • 10:35:49

    ELVINGYes, just 33 votes against it, I believe, in the House which is pretty much the minimum. In the Senate however, it now goes to the embrace, if you will, of Bernie Sanders who's the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee in the Senate. And Bernie has been waiting for a chance to talk about some of these issues for a very long time. And he has a number of other things on his mind too, by the way. And he would like the attention that is going to come with this. And he would like to probably make this a transformative moment for making everybody think about the VA differently and to think about a number of other issues as well. So it's got a lively history coming in the Senate.

  • 10:36:23

    PAGEBernie Sanders, he might be interested in running for president, Karen.

  • 10:36:27

    TUMULTYWell, that's right, although I don't think too many people are giving Bernie Sanders much of a shot. But he is certainly very, very -- he's incredibly articulate and he is very, very skillful at getting attention when he wants to get attention to an issue. I mean, any of us who watched his filibuster a couple of years ago know that.

  • 10:36:47

    PAGEBut, you know, even candidates who don't have much of a chance or maybe zero change of being elected can really affect the course of a debate.

  • 10:36:55

    BURNSWell, that's what you have on the Democratic side now is people just assume by default that Hillary Clinton is going to be the nominee, and with good reason. But someone like Bernie Sanders represents a much, much more liberal version of the Democratic philosophy. He's not even actually elected as a Democrat. And so you have people out there like him using the platforms they have to try to box in Hillary Clinton on the issues that they care about.

  • 10:37:16

    PAGEAlex Burns of Politico and we're also joined this hour by Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post and Ron Elving of NPR. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll go back to the phones. We'll take your calls and questions, we'll read your emails. Stay with us.

  • 10:39:59

    PAGEGeneral Motors hit a record this week they would, I think, rather have avoided. They announced more recalls, bring the totals to the highest point in the history of the company. What is going on here, Ron?

  • 10:40:10

    ELVINGYou can call it an abundance of caution after this devastating road they have taken over their handling, mishandling in past years of this ignition problem that led to fires, that led to deaths. Now, they have brought in 35 new safety inspectors in the company who are crawling over every vehicle they have and every complaint they have received. And so, whether it involves a fatality, which as I understand is none of these recalls are actually about a defect that led to a fatality, although some led to accidents and injury.

  • 10:40:39

    ELVINGThis spreads across a number of different models. It was two and a half -- almost two and a half million initially. Now they've added several hundred thousand to that number of their rather small models, which apparently is an ignition-related problem. But most of these have to do with other things, like seatbelts and things of that nature.

  • 10:40:55

    PAGEYou know, Karen, we've watched the rebound of the U.S. auto industry with some relief, I think, since the financial meltdown in 2008. Does this have implications, do you think, for the health of the U.S. auto industry?

  • 10:41:09

    TUMULTYOh, I think it does. And the real issue on the ignition switch beyond the human tragedy of these 13 deaths was that GM apparently knew about the problem. They knew about it for a decade and didn't fix it. So that is the kind of thing that really, you know, just destroys people's confidence. Although, Toyota has been hit by this kind of thing, too. So, I mean, with recalls. So it isn't like the American auto industry is the only one who's doing this.

  • 10:41:40

    PAGEWell, it's the old Washington lesson, it's not the crime, it's the cover-up.

  • 10:41:46

    ELVINGWell, and in this case, I think, it's clearly a terrible public relations problem for GM. They paid a $35 million civil penalty for the ignition switch. You're right, which is not like big money for an auto company. I do think it's also, you know, when you think about just success stories of the Obama administration, they love talking about the auto turnaround in the 2012 election, probably kept Michigan, Ohio in the Democratic column. And I think it's a little bit harder now to point to, you know, so-called government motors and say what a great success story that was.

  • 10:42:15

    PAGEAT&T announced Sunday it would buy DirecTV, yet another media merger, Ron. Why do we see so much consolidation in that industry?

  • 10:42:25

    ELVINGIt seems to be largely about content. It seems to be not just to make yourself bigger and make it easier for you to make money in the sort of classic way of merger. But this is where people are trying to get control not only over their own technology and delivery but over the content that might be the most lucrative source for them for revenue going down the road.

  • 10:42:43

    ELVINGSo, for example, with respect to this most recent one, there seems to be a very valuable football franchise involved in terms of the ability to watch any game that you want to watch on Sunday and a lot of money being available with football becoming more popular all the time. And so, it has a lot to do with getting the control over not just the delivery of product but the product itself. That is to say the content.

  • 10:43:06

    PAGESo, Karen, a good deal for consumers or a bad one?

  • 10:43:08

    TUMULTYFor the next few years, they have promised to hold prices steady. That they have also promised so-called net neutrality. They're not going to be cutting special deals so that some providers, you know, can get in with better service, better speed than others. But after three years, all bets are off. And I think most people think prices go up.

  • 10:43:29

    PAGENet neutrality, this is such a complicated issue to me. Who can explain it briefly what we're talking about when we talk about the net neutrality debate?

  • 10:43:36

    BURNSWell, basically, I mean, in very broad strokes here, because I'm not any more an expert on this than I am on the Office of Management and Budget, is you have -- the concept of net neutrality is the idea that the internet should essentially be like a water company where you don't have some people paying more money to get better water than other people, that everybody gets the same water at the same rate, more or less, right?

  • 10:43:57

    BURNSSo you don't have AT&T or your service provider saying if you're a big company or if you're, you know, a very wealthy person, you can pay, you know, a mint for your broadband access and get in a so-called fast lane, where content streams much faster, et cetera, et cetera.

  • 10:44:14

    BURNSAnd this is an issue both for consumers, both for the little guy who wants to be able to, you know, watch "House of Cards" on Netflix and also for, you know, it's a huge issue in Silicon Valley for folks who are sort of up and coming entrepreneurs who worry that in the event that you get these sort of fast lane carve outs for the really big companies that you end up stifling innovation for folks who can't bare a startup cost of paying for that.

  • 10:44:35

    PAGEAnd it's also an issue where we see the FCC taking a stand, changing policy.

  • 10:44:39

    ELVINGThat's right. And the FCC proposal that's out there is very unpopular with a lot of people who want to protect things that way they have been. And there is, I think, a kind of romantic notion among a lot of people that the internet can still be what it was when it first began and that all these concerns about privacy and who is using it to do what and who's getting what kinds of information about you.

  • 10:44:58

    ELVINGAnd all these concerns we have about who's making more money than somebody else and getting more advantage of their commercial partners than anybody else. Those kinds of things, gee, can we just make all that go away and go back to the 1990s? I'm afraid that's going to be difficult.

  • 10:45:14

    PAGESo the Justice Department has to approve this deal, Karen. Do we think they are likely to do so?

  • 10:45:19

    TUMULTYYou know, at this point, it looks like the deal is, you know, is on track. But who knows? I mean, I'm not expert on this either.

  • 10:45:28

    PAGELet's go to the phones and bring back some of our listeners. Let's go to Cleveland and talk to Marty. Marty, hi, you're on the air.

  • 10:45:35

    MARTYHi. I wanted to respond to the veteran who never used the VA. And I'm a veteran who does use the VA and I think it's a really good system. I think it's underfunded. And Congress is calling these people to the carpet for some things and I think they're not facing up to the real problem, which is Congress not providing enough money for the VA so that everybody can get to their appointments and not have to reschedule and not have to miss appointments.

  • 10:46:03

    MARTYThe VA just doesn't have enough money. So the real culprit Congress. They need to fully fund the VA so that our veterans could be seen.

  • 10:46:11

    PAGEMarty, thanks so much for your call. Thank you also for your service. We've also gotten an email from John who writes, first of all, he says, correcting a point we made earlier in this hour. He says, "Walter Reed is not a VA Hospital. It's in the Department of the Army system." But John also writes, "I'm a self-employed veteran. I receive all of my health care at the VA Hospital in Cleveland."

  • 10:46:31

    PAGE"I have been thrilled with the quality and timeliness of care I've received. It is a fabulous facility staffed with very capable and caring professionals." Thanks very much for that email. Let's go take another call. We'll go to Vermont and talk to Tom. He's calling us from Norwich, hi.

  • 10:46:48

    TOMI just like to offer a little bit of a counter nowadays about the VA, just give a few specifics. The VA is actually way ahead of the private sector in certain areas. This include a specially computerized patient record systems and implementing evidence-based best practices with patient interactions and things like that. So, you know, people shouldn't get this narrative that the VA is somehow inferior to the private sector. In many ways, it's superior.

  • 10:47:14

    TOMSecond of all, I'd like to point out that there seems to be an overabundance of coverage about these recent allegations, given the fact that, A, they are allegations. And, B, they are in a small number of facilities in a very large system. And that this kind of negative coverage has two really awful side effects. One is it's terrible for the morale of dedicated professionals who often are working for less than they could make in the private sector because they want to serve veterans. And second of all, it scares veterans away from going to the VA where they can get the best care for things like PTSD and TBI.

  • 10:47:49

    PAGETom, that's such an interesting point you make. Do we have a sense, Alex, of how widespread these allegations are? Is it limited to Phoenix or have we heard about examples of these delays and even falsified reporting at other places?

  • 10:48:04

    BURNSYou know, I think Phoenix is clearly the worst actor in the system. We have heard of allegations of similar kinds of misconduct at a couple dozen other locations. Although, you know, as Tom said, this is a huge system, right? So if you're talking about, you know, 26 facilities, that's still, percentage wise, very small. I think this is, you know, partly -- the White House has sort of assured people that they really do think at the end of the day this is going to prove to be a pretty contained thing as opposed to a systemic problem.

  • 10:48:30

    BURNSI think you have heard some pretty prominent veterans advocates. I spoke to Bob Dole myself earlier this week and just sort of coming out and saying, like, look, you know, relative to other countries, we do more for veterans than most other places in the world. So, you know, I think we still don't really know where the bouncing ball is going to end up on this, but I do think those folks in Phoenix have a world of pain coming their way.

  • 10:48:48

    PAGELet's go to Tidewater, VA and talk to Leonard. Leonard, hi.

  • 10:48:52

    LEONARDHi, Ms. Page. I'll tell you, if I can get to a device at 10, I'll never miss Diane. I like her soothing voice and I wish her a speedy recovery. But I'm just as happy to hear you moderate.

  • 10:49:01

    PAGEOh, Leonard, thanks very much.

  • 10:49:03

    LEONARDI hope this isn't off-topic. I'll preface this by telling you I'm a self-confessed liberal. And the only place I have to voice my opinions is in the mornings on Local Talk, it's very right wing. They are convinced they will sweep the Senate and I've even heard them saying they want to pick up at least 50 seats in the House. But these are my thoughts. I think the executive branch is going to be in an FDR-Truman era.

  • 10:49:28

    LEONARDI think we're going to keep -- the Democrats are going to keep the executive branch for several terms. I think the Senate is going to stay in Democrat hands. I believe the Republicans will hold the house until about the next census, 2021-2022 when districting is done again. And those are my thoughts. I hope that's not too off-topic. I love you, guys.

  • 10:49:49

    PAGENo, not at all. Leonard, you could be an analyst on "The Diane Rehm Show." Well, let's talk about what we think will happen in the midterm elections, let's talk about the Senate. As Leonard notes, a lot of Republicans feel pretty good about their chances of winning control of the Senate.

  • 10:50:04

    ELVINGAnd they should because if you look at the retirements, they're very heavily weighted to Democratic retirements and many of those retirements are in states that were carried by Mitt Romney, that were carried by John McCain. There are probably five seats just right off the top that will probably go Republican where a Democratic incumbent retired and had that incumbent run for another term the seat would have remained Democratic.

  • 10:50:26

    ELVINGSo that's a huge head start. That's a huge head start. Number two, the Republicans don't look like they'd lose any. There will be a close race in Kentucky where Alison Lundergen Grimes is the Democratic nominee and she looks like a strong candidate. And the polls show that's close. Georgia's looking king of tough for the Democrats. And apart from that, it's really hard to find another real race around the country.

  • 10:50:45

    ELVINGSo unless something really shocking happens in the remaining primaries, it looks like the Democrats start at a deficit of maybe three, four, five seats just from vacancies against the Republicans. And then there are a lot of other vulnerable Democratic seats in the South and elsewhere.

  • 10:50:57

    PAGESo what about the House. Leonard notes Republicans all think they're going to pick up seats in the House. That would put them in close to a perhaps a historic majority for the GOP in the House.

  • 10:51:09

    TUMULTYYeah, I think the opportunity is in the House in part because of the way the lines are drawn are not there for great sweeping changes. And the other thing is while there's a lot here that's going in the Republicans' favor, some Republicans I've talked to are concerned that the party itself has not really put forward an alternative vision of what it would do if it were in charge. And this is going to be a really important predicate for the 2016 presidential election. As Republican pollster Dave Winston who advices John Boehner said to me, an opportunity is not an outcome.

  • 10:51:46

    PAGEInteresting line, perhaps something to live by. Alex, what is the Republican message? Is there a unified Republican message for November?

  • 10:51:53

    BURNSI think to the extent as a unified Republican message, it's just that you have to punish this president for health care and you can't trust these Democrats to spend your money, right? And that has worked pretty well for them in the past. I think Leonard's point is pretty well taken, though, that all the forces that make Republicans strong in midterms, the dominance of white voters, the dominance of conservative voters, the way the health care issue ties up, particularly in the South make them weak in the presidential election.

  • 10:52:15

    BURNSSo I think the real test to the Republican Party as a long-term institution is whether at the end of primary season in July or August or, you know, once we're past the real bulk of primary season, whether you do start to hear the party move in, you know, a more constructive direction on policy and maybe say some stuff that they couldn't say when they have Matt Bevin or Chris McDaniel or one of these other really hard, like, primary challenges breathing down their necks.

  • 10:52:37

    PAGESo if that's what amounts to the unified Republican message for November, Ron, what is the unified Democratic message for November?

  • 10:52:44

    ELVINGThe Democrats have been trying to push a message of addressing income inequality with policies such as the minimum wage and they've been pushing a picture of a more realistic America when regard to immigration where we revise the immigration laws to recognize where we stand in that area and on social issues as well.

  • 10:53:01

    PAGEI'm Susan Page. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We've been taking your calls, reading your emails. But first, Karen, I want to talk about a series that the Washington Post has been doing. You've been very involved with that. Fifty years ago this week, President Lyndon Johnson launched his Great Society program. You've been taking a look at repercussions, the history, the legacy of the Great Society. What have you concluded?

  • 10:53:24

    TUMULTYWell, it's extraordinary the degree to which the Great Society really does shape so much about how we live today. Its big programs like civil rights and Medicare and Medicaid, it is things, you know, National Public Radio is itself a Great Society program. So I think that LBJ's legacy were so overshadowed by Vietnam that, you know, only now are people taking a look at both the degree to which it has shaped every single aspect of our lives.

  • 10:53:54

    TUMULTYBut also the fact that we are still fighting about just about every single bit of it. It seems like every political debate in this country somehow or another can trace some roots to the Great Society.

  • 10:54:06

    PAGEAlex?

  • 10:54:07

    BURNSYou know, and the Great Society -- I think Karen's articles have been really important reading for really everyone who's following the current debates about the size and role of government that, yeah, we are still fighting about Medicare and we are still fighting about federal funding for public and higher education. But these programs have largely remained intact and gotten more popular.

  • 10:54:27

    BURNSSo even as the reputation of government and government workers and government spend has just completely tanked, you know, I think even a lot of Republicans who favor entitlement reform will tell you Medicare is not going anywhere. And the Department of Education isn't going anywhere.

  • 10:54:44

    ELVINGMajor props, major props to Karen's series. It's really been inspiring and fantastic to see all that brought together in one place and to know that history. Another thing that happened in 1964 of course was Barry Goldwater was nominated to be the Republican presidential frontrunner candidate. And that began really the modern pushback, the modern era that led to Richard Nixon and specifically the Ronald Reagan and to everything the Republican Party has come to stand for in the year since then.

  • 10:55:15

    ELVINGSo in a very real sense, LBJ not only defined the Great Society, but he also defined the arguments against it and defined the positions of those parties for half a century.

  • 10:55:24

    PAGEYou know, one of the lessons from LBJ may be the vantage point of history because for 50 years LBJ has been known mostly as the president who became enmeshed in the Vietnam War. I wonder, Karen, if you see a period of sort of reassessment of a legacy that's more three dimensional for him.

  • 10:55:41

    TUMULTYI think this year has been sort of one anniversary after another, starting in January with the anniversary of the War on Poverty and the great debate over whether that succeeded certainly. One thing that, even though it was probably the most controversial thing he did at the time, that everyone now agrees was a good thing were the Civil Rights Acts that only the federal government had the capacity to dismantle these barriers that were really keeping large segments of our population from fully participating in American life.

  • 10:56:11

    PAGESo a great part of his legacy but something that proved to be politically pretty costly for Democrats for a long period of time.

  • 10:56:18

    BURNSA long period of time in certain parts of the country, right? That you're looking at, you know, certainly for the last 50 years it's been a pretty steady downward track for Democrats, may be capped by the Senate elections this November. But, you know, I think you are seeing really the fruits of a lot of what was done during that time in terms of civil rights, in terms of immigration are coming to fruition now as you see, really, this new diverse national electorate coming into play in presidential elections in a big way.

  • 10:56:42

    PAGEI want to thank our panel for this hour's discussion. Alex Burns of Politico. Karen Tumulty from the Washington Post. Ron Elving from NPR. Thanks so much for being with us on "The Diane Rehm Show."

  • 10:56:52

    BURNSThank you.

  • 10:56:52

    ELVINGThank you.

  • 10:56:52

    TUMULTYGreat to be here.

  • 10:56:53

    PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She'll be back next week. Have a great holiday weekend. Thanks for listening.

  • 10:57:00

    ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Denise Couture, Susan Casey Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn, Danielle Knight and Allison Brody. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts and podcasts. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is drshow@wamu.org. And we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington D.C. This is NPR.

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