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Mr. President, the hardest decisions we make in the Senate involve asking our fellow Americans to risk their health and life in defense of our country. The cost to our country, our communities, and our families is so great that -- in any war -- we have an obligation to make sure we're doing right by our service members, our veterans, and our country. That’s why we in Congress need to ask questions like–

  • Do our troops have a clear mission?

  • Is there a plan to achieve that mission?

  • Do our troops have the support and equipment they need to succeed?

  • Do we have the right people in place?

  • And are we taking care of our veterans when they return home from military service?

For too long, this Congress has not done its job asking those questions and demanding answers. Here in Congress we have a responsibility to make sure that the Bush Administration – or any administration -- is fulfilling those critical requirements. So today I rise to offer an update on where we stand on some of those questions and to share some disturbing news from recent reports.

The evidence I'll share today points to five disappointing conclusions, and they all demand hearings and accountability.

  • First, the Bush Administration misled Congress about its failures in planning for the care of America's veterans.
  • Second, the Bush Administration still doesn't have a plan to care for our veterans.

  • Third, we don't have a clear mission in the War in Iraq. That fight has greatly impacted our ability to prosecute the broader War on Terror, and – according to the latest intelligence estimate – has helped to fuel new terrorist recruits.

  • Fourth, the Bush Administration has put politics over progress in Iraq and at home. In Iraq, it sent political cronies to staff the provisional government – instead of experienced professionals who could get the job done. From Brownie at FEMA to new reports about the HUD Secretary, the Bush Administration puts politics over competence.

  • And finally, Congress is not doing its job of oversight. Unless we hold hearings, until we demand answers, and until we require accountability, we'll just keep muddling through with the same poor results.

We can do better, we can be safer, and we can be more successful – but it's got to start with an honest assessment of what's working, what's not, and what we need to change.

1. Bush Administration Misled Congress on Veterans Care

In that spirit, I want to discuss those five conclusions I mentioned, starting with the fact that the Bush Administration misled Congress about

Bush Administration Misled Congress on Veterans Care

its inadequate efforts to care for our veterans. Over the past two budget years, the Bush Administration was dramatically wrong in its planning for veterans' healthcare. The result was a $3 billion shortfall last summer. This was not just a failure in planning. It meant failing to get veterans the services they required in a timely fashion. It meant veterans had to face long waits to see a doctor. It meant they didn’t get the care they deserved.

That horrible planning is no way to care for the veterans who have sacrificed so much for us. We can do better. That's why after that failure, I joined with Senators Akaka, Durbin, and Salazar. Together, we asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate what happened at the VA. This is the report we got back. Frankly, the answers are damning, and they cast doubt on whether we can rely on the VA for accurate numbers and straight answers.

GAO's 4 Findings

I want to focus on four findings. First, the GAO found that the VA knew it had serious problems with its budget, but failed to notify us in Congress. Even worse, it misled us. The report suggests that the VA could still be sending us inaccurate information in its quarterly reports. Second, the GAO found that the VA was basing its budgets on "unrealistic assumptions, errors in estimation, and insufficient data." Third, the Pentagon failed to give the VA up-to-date information about how many service members would be coming down the pipeline into the VA. Finally, the GAO found that the VA did not adequately plan for the impact of service members from Iraq and Afghanistan.

VA Misled Congress

For me, I think one of the most disturbing findings is that the VA kept assuring us in Congress that everything was fine – while inside the VA it was clear that shortfalls were growing. The VA became aware it would have problems in October 2004 – but didn't admit those problems until June of 2005. Veterans were telling me of long lines and delays in care. For months, I tried to give the VA more money, but the Administration fought me every step of the way. And who paid the price for the VA's deceptions? America's veterans, and that's just wrong.

Timeline of VA Deceptions

Let me walk through some of the deceptions found in the report. It shows a very troubling gap between what the VA knew and what the VA told us. According to the GAO report, starting back in

Murray Illustrates the Timeline of VA Deceptions

October 2004, the VA knew money was tight. It anticipated serious budget challenges, and created a "Budget Challenges" working group. Two months later, in December 2004, the budget group made internal recommendations to deal with the shortfall. It suggested delaying new initiatives and shifting around funding.

Two months later, in February 2005, the Bush Administration released its budget proposal for 2006. The GAO found that budget was based on "unrealistic assumptions, errors in estimation and insufficient data."

A week later at a hearing – on February 15th, 2005, I asked the VA Secretary if the President's budget was sufficient. He told me, "I have many of the same concerns, and I end up being satisfied that we can get the job done with this budget."

Mr. President, let's remember what was happening back at that time. I was hearing from veterans that they were facing delays in care and that the VA system was stretched to capacity. But the VA continued to say everything was fine.

On March 8th, Secretary Nicholson told a House committee that the president's FY 2006 budget, quote "gives VA what it needs."

I was hearing a much different story as I spoke with veterans around the country. That's why on March 10th, I offered an amendment in the Senate Budget Committee to increase veterans funding by 3% so we could hire more doctors and provide faster care to veterans. Unfortunately, Republicans said no.

That same month, the VA's internal monthly reports showed that demand for healthcare was exceeding projections. That was another warning sign that the VA should have shared with us, but it didn't. On March 16th, Senator Akaka and I offered an amendment here on the Senate floor to increase veterans funding by $2.85 billion. Once again, Republicans said no.

The next month, on April 5th, Secretary Nicholson wrote to Senator Hutchison saying – "I can assure you that the VA does not need emergency supplemental funds in FY 2005."A week later, on April 12th, I offered two amendments on the Senate floor to boost veterans funding. First, I asked the Senate to agree that the lack of veterans funding was an emergency and that we had to fix. Republicans said no. Then I asked the Senate to agree that supporting our veterans was a priority. Again, Republican said no. As a result, veterans didn't get the funding they needed, and the deception continued.

On June 9th, I asked Secretary Nicholson at a hearing if he had enough funding to deal with the mental health challenges of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. He assured me the VA was fine.

So for six months we had happy talk that everything was fine with the VA. Then, in June – just two weeks after the Secretary's latest assurance -- the truth finally came out. On June 23rd, the VA revealed a massive shortfall of $3 billion. I went to work my colleagues, and we came up with the funding. But we could have solved that problem much earlier and saved veterans the delays they experienced.

By misleading us, the Bush Administration hurt America's veterans. We could have provided the money when it was needed. We could have been hiring the doctors and nurses we needed. We could have been buying the medical equipment that was needed. And we could have helped keep thousands of veterans off waiting lists for care.

Here's the bottom line: The Bush Administration knew about a problem back in October 2004. They saw it getting worse, but they kept assuring us everything was fine. They worked to defeat my amendments to provide funding, and they didn't come clean until June 2005. That is unacceptable.

Veterans Deserve Answers

I think America’s veterans deserve real answers. This report shows that the VA was not telling Congress the truth and was fighting those of us who were trying to help. We need to bring Secretary Nicholson before the Veterans' Affairs Committee so we can get some real answers. We need to ensure the VA does not repeat the same mistakes of the past two years. We owe that to our current and future veterans who sacrifice so much for us.

Phony Savings for 4 Years

We need an explanation of why the VA lied to us about so-called "management efficiencies." The GAO found those alleged savings were nothing but hot air. This report clearly shows the Bush Administration misrepresented the truth to us for four fiscal years, through four budgets, and four appropriations cycles about these bogus savings. And when they could not make these efficiencies a reality, they took the funds from veterans' healthcare. That too is unacceptable.

The VA is Still Not Telling the Truth

The report also suggests that even in its latest quarterly reports to us – the VA is slow to report and does not provide key information we required – such as the time required for veterans to get their first appointment.

Pentagon Failed to Provide Updated Information

Mr. President, the GAO report also says that the Department of Defense failed to provide the VA up-to-date information on how many service members would be separating from service and seeking care at the VA. That is really frustrating to me because I've been asking every general who comes up here if they're doing enough to ensure a smooth transition from the Pentagon to the VA.

In fact, on February 16th of last year, I questioned Secretary Rumsfeld directly. I got him to agree that caring for veterans is part of the cost of war – but he had no real answer when I asked why his request for the war did not include funding for veterans.

VA Failed to Plan

Finally, the GAO report verifies that the VA failed to plan for the impact of the veterans coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.

2. Bush Administration Still Doesn't Have a Plan to Care for Veterans

Mr. President, I'm concerned that the Bush Administration still – today – does not have a plan to meet the needs of our returning service members. Just look at the gap between what the VA told us it needs – and what we're actually spending on veterans' healthcare. In July, the VA sent an estimate to the Congressional Budget Office. The VA said it would need $1 billion a year for 10 years to care for veterans from Iraq. But here's the problem – we are already spending more than $1 billion this year, and we still haven't seen the lion's share of veterans return home. There will be more veterans needing help, and $1 billion a year is not going to cut it.

I've heard some of my colleagues speak about the generous increases to VA programs. I agree they have been helpful, but unless the dollars we provide meets the needs of our veterans we won't have fulfilled our responsibility. Let's focus on just one area of veteran's healthcare – support for mental health challenges such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Here's what the Associated Press recently reported:

"More than one-third of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeking medical treatment from the Veterans Health Administration report symptoms of stress or other mental disorders - a tenfold increase in the last 18 months, according to an agency study."

It's a good thing that veterans are seeking help. I hope it means we've made it easier to get care and we've reduced the stigma associated with the invisible impacts of war. During the Vietnam War, I saw those challenges first-hand when I volunteered in the psychiatric ward of the Seattle VA hospital. It's good that veterans are seeking care, but we need to make sure we can handle their needs.

The AP article mentions a soldier from Virginia Beach, Virginia who was having "a hard time sleeping after he returned from Iraq, and was told he'd have to wait two-and-a-half months for an appointment at the VA facility.”

Here is a service member in need, and all the VA can say is "get in line and wait 75 days." That is disgraceful. I've held several discussions in my home state of Washington with veterans and mental health experts. Most recently, I was in Everett, Washington on August 17th and heard about the challenges on the ground.

Whether dealing with the large number of veterans with severe physical injuries, or traumatic brain injuries, the VA has no plan. Whether dealing with the 16 percent of wounded service members coming back from Iraq who have eye injuries, which Walter Reed reported in August – the VA has no plan. Whether it is dealing with the over one third of all service members to return home and separate from the military who are seeking mental health services – the VA has no plan.

And we're still not getting straight answers. In that AP article, a VA official say he's not aware of problems with veterans getting mental health services. Dr. Michael Kussman is quoted as saying, "We're not aware that people are having trouble getting services from us in any consistent way or pattern around the country."

Mr. President, many veterans advocates disagree. In fact, another VA official pointed to serious problems in meeting the mental health needs of veterans.

In the May edition of Psychiatric News, Dr. Frances Murphy, the Undersecretary for Health Policy Coordination at the VA, said the agency is ill-prepared to serve the mental health needs of our nation's veterans. In the article, Dr. Murphy notes that some VA clinics don't provide mental health or substance abuse care, or if they do, "waiting lists render that care virtually inaccessible."

The Bush Administration has failed to deliver our veterans the care they need – denying them the respect they deserve. Given the VA's bad track record and misleading statements, we need to demand a real plan from the VA to ensure our veterans get the care they have earned.

3. Iraq – No Clear Mission, A Distraction, & Fueling New Terrorists

Mr. President, another question we must ask is about our mission in Iraq today. Unless we have clarity and purpose of mission, we're not going to know when we've achieved it and when our troops can come home. Mr. President, we all want the same thing in Iraq – for our troops to complete their mission successfully and come home safely. But today our troops' mission in Iraq lacks clarity.

What are they accomplishing in Iraq today? Overthrowing Saddam Hussein? They already accomplished that. Looking for weapons of mass destruction? They looked, and there were no weapons to be found. Are they supposed to be setting up an Iraqi government? Well, we've done that. The Iraqi people have created a constitution, elected their leaders, and filled their cabinet. Our troops have done everything we've asked them to do. What is left? And will the President's policies get us there? That's the discussion we need to have.

Every time we ask these questions, we get the same empty response from the President, his cabinet, and his supporters in Congress – "Stay the course." "Stay the course" is not a good plan if the course you're on is not working.

A Distraction from the War on Terror

Mr. President, we also need to get to the truth about the relationship between Iraq and the broader War on Terror. On September 6th here on the Senate floor, I warned that the President's focus on Iraq has distracted us from the larger War on Terror. I said that the President took a detour from the War on Terror and invested a majority of our resources into Iraq – seemingly forever.

That weakens our ability to fight the broader War on Terror, and leaves us vulnerable. We have not made the investments here at home to protect ourselves and we haven't finished our work against Al Qaeda. Bin Laden is still on the loose. Afghanistan is a mess, and U.S. troops there are imperiled there.

National Intelligence Estimate – Iraq War Fueling New Terrorists

Today, three weeks after I gave that speech here on the Senate floor, we learned that the National Intelligence Estimate concluded that the War in Iraq has helped to fuel the recruitment of new terrorists. The Administration's failures to plan and to face the truth in Iraq demand Congressional hearings so we can chart a better course.

4. Bush Administration Put Politics Over Competence in Iraq

Mr. President, we also need examine how the Bush Administration bungled the Iraqi reconstruction. On September 17th, the Washington Post ran a story titled, "Ties to GOP Trumped Know-How Among Staff Sent to Rebuild Iraq."

The article describes how Americans were selected to work in Iraq for the Coalition Provisional Authority. The article says, "applicants didn't need to be experts in the Middle East or in post-conflict reconstruction. What seemed most important was loyalty to the Bush administration."

The article goes on to say,

"The decision to send the loyal and the willing instead of the best and the brightest is now regarded by many people involved in the 3 1/2 -year effort to stabilize and rebuild Iraq as one of the Bush administration's gravest errors. Many of those selected because of their political fidelity spent their time trying to impose a conservative agenda on the postwar occupation, which sidetracked more important reconstruction efforts and squandered goodwill among the Iraqi people, according to many people who participated in the reconstruction effort."

Mr. President, they had a political loyalty test instead of a competence test and that may be responsible for how long we've had to stay in Iraq and the problems we've faced there. Congress needs to look at that and hold people accountable.

Politics Over Progress at HUD Too

Unfortunately, this pattern and practice of political favoritism within the Administration

Politics Over Progress at HUD

extends beyond Iraq to how the Bush Administration handles government contracts here at home. Last week, we got new evidence that a member of President's cabinet has made a series of statements that highlighted the importance of politics in awarding government contracts in his agency. In May, I asked the Inspector General at HUD to look into Secretary Alphonso Jackson’s public statements that he deliberately denied a contract to a firm that had been critical of President Bush.

Last week, the IG sent me the results of his investigation. The report is 340 pages long – with hundreds of pages of sworn testimony from dozens of HUD officials. The report includes sworn statements from HUD personnel stating that: Secretary Jackson told his staff to monitor the political affiliation of contract competitors and consider those affiliations in the awarding contracts. Secretary Jackson said that a HUD contractor had strong political affiliations that were not supportive of the President. The Secretary said he did not want the contractor to receive any additional HUD contracts.

As a result, the contractor's award was subjected to an unusual extent of delay and review. So we have a Cabinet Secretary telling his staff to issue contracts based on politics – not based on who can do the best job for American taxpayers. It is true that, in looking at the record, the Justice Department concluded "that no apparent criminal violation could be discerned based on evidence to date." But the Justice Department came to that conclusion, only because HUD staff actually ignored the Secretary's inappropriate instructions.

When you combine what has been going on at HUD with what happened at the CPA in Iraq and reports about similar issues at the Department of Interior, it is clear that we need to demand accountability. That's why last week I wrote to the White House Chief of Staff – Josh Bolten – and urged him to take immediate steps to ensure political favoritism and discrimination don't play a role in federal contracts. But Mr. President, I recognize that we can't rely on the White House Chief of Staff to clean up the Bush Administration – which brings me to my final point: We need real oversight.

5. Congress Needs to Provide Real Oversight

In this Congress, there has been very little oversight of the Bush Administration. The President has basically had free reign because this Republican-controlled Congress has failed to do its job in asking tough questions and demanding real answers. Norman Ornstein, an expert on Congress at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said this Congress is the worst he's seen in terms of oversight. He told the Philadelphia Inquirer,

"These people have long thought of themselves as foot soldiers in the president's army, and their view is that oversight is something to avoid, lest they find something that might embarrass the administration. I don't see a single sign that this attitude will substantively change."

That's congressional expert Norman Ornstein on the Republican's failure to oversee the Bush Administration. Democrats are trying to provide the oversight that Republicans are unwilling to provide. On Monday, the Democratic Policy Committee held a hearing on preparations for the War in Iraq. Retired military leaders told us that the Bush Administration failed to plan for the war and that the Administration misled the American people. We had to hold those hearings under the Policy Committee's banner because the Republicans wouldn't hold real committee oversight hearings. We need oversight so we can learn the facts and can fix things that aren't going well. If we never have real hearings, if we never demand real accountability, we'll never get better results.

We Can Do Better

America can do better, we can be more secure, and our troops can be safer. It has to start with the truth. Not rosy predictions of how things will be, not declarations of will that gloss over the facts on the ground, not corruption and politics holding back progress, but the truth. So far this Republican-controlled Congress has been unwilling to let our citizens learn the truth. The American people deserve better.