WASHINGTON: Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth lost both legs and full use of her right arm when her Illinois Army National Guard helicopter got shot down in Iraq. So the Illinois Democrat was understandably impatient with Braulio Castillo, a technology contractor who parlayed an old football injury at a military prep school into a dubious 30 percent disability rating from the VA and hundreds of millions in IRS contracts set aside for small businesses owned by disabled veterans.
“Does your foot hurt?” Duckworth asked sweetly. “My feet hurt too.”
The full video (at the bottom of this story) is circulating widely on the web, and it’s worth watching the whole exchange, not that it’s much of an exchange: When Castillo tries to defend his 30 percent disability rating for foot pain – Duckworth’s mangled right arm only got a 20 percent – the soldier turned congresswoman cuts him off: “This is not an argument. I’m talking. I’m up here.”
But there’s a deeper policy problem here that can’t be solved by lambasting Castillo, as satisfying and well-deserved as it may be. See if you can spot the problem lurking in these lines of Duckworth’s:
“It seems like there is some opportunity here for legislative fixes to the system….You may not have broken any laws… but you certainly broke the trust of this great nation, you broke the trust of veterans. Iraq and Afghanistan veterans right now are waiting an average of 237 days for an initial disability rating and it is because people like you who are gaming that system are adding to that backlog.”
Duckworth is right that we have two interconnected problems: dishonest veterans and pseudo-veterans who get disability benefits they don’t deserve, and honest vets who don’t get the benefits they do. But here’s the stinger: Anything you do to fix one of those problems makes the other one worse.
If you make “legislative fixes” to prevent dubious claims like Castillo’s getting through, you’ve added additional legal and bureaucratic requirements that slow the process for everyone, honest and dishonest alike. (This kind of unintended consequence is a big reason why the Pentagon’s weapons-procurement system has been “fixed” to prevent millions in fraud, waste, and abuse at the price of running up prices by billions so often that it now takes longer and costs more than ever before to buy a weapon). On the other hand, if you streamline the system so honest vets can get their claims processed faster, it can make it easier for fraudsters to slip through.
Yes, you can add more claims processing personnel – but it takes time to train them in the intricacies of disability regulations and money to hire them, at a time when budgets are coming down so quickly that it’s compromising the readiness of the armed forces to fight. Yes, you can streamline the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in ways that make it more efficient at both processing claims and detecting fraud – it’s a government bureaucracy after all – but there are only so many cakes you can have and eat too. Ultimately, in any process, whether it’s resolving disability claims at the VA or following a recipe in the kitchen, speed and accuracy are at odds: Increase one and you decrease the other.
All too often, Congress lurches from one crowd-pleasing extreme to the other, first lambasting bureaucrats for paying the wrong people and ordering them to be more careful, then lambasting bureaucrats for not paying the right people and ordering them to be quicker. Considering how big a burden the veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq – and their families – have born for the last 12 years, and how many of them are going to need help for the rest of their lives, we owe it to them not to let our passion drive our policymaking.