House Speaker John Boehner today expressed condolences for the victims of the latest Fort Hood shooting and said Congress should explore ways to better prevent mentally ill people from acquiring firearms, as investigators continue to probe the mental history of the alleged gunman.
"There's no question that those with mental health issues should be prevented from owning weapons or being able to purchase weapons," Boehner, R-Ohio, said at a news conference. "We need to continue to look at to find a way to keep weapons out of the hands of people who should not have them."
Authorities identified Army Spc. Ivan Lopez as the shooter who killed three people and wounded 16 others on Wednesday before committing suicide.
Lopez, who officials say had deployed to Iraq for four months but never saw combat, was reportedly being evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Boehner said Congress has begun to address mental illness by funding "a pilot project addressing mental health issues and weapons" as part of the Medicare Doc Fix, which just passed Congress and is awaiting the president's final authorization.
That program establishes an eight-state demonstration program for a two-year period authorizing $1.1 billion as an incentive to community mental health providers to offer a broad range of mental health issues, according to a senior Republican leadership aide.
But even after President Obama signs that bill, Boehner conceded, many veterans still are not getting all the support they need.
Boehner joined several veterans service organizations to call on Congress to pass the Department of Veteran Affairs Management Accountability Act of 2014, which aims at improving transparency and increasing accountability by granting the secretary new authorization to fire senior executive officials within the department.
"For our active-duty members, they ought to have access to high-quality care, just like what we're asking for those who are now veterans," Boehner said. "What we're trying to do here, though, is focus in on the serious problems at the Veterans Administration. We're spending $160 billion a year of taxpayers' money, and it ought to be spent wisely to help those who've worn our uniform."
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who has sponsored a companion bill in the Senate, said "all Americans deserve and expect a government that's both accountable and effective."
"The enormous and vast majority of the 300,000 men and women who work in this agency work hard and do a great job, but like any organization there's going to be breakdowns," he said. "And when there are, people need to be held accountable, especially at the senior management level."
In a statement, the VA strongly opposed the legislation, and contended it already has sufficient power to make personnel decisions.
"VA must remain competitive to recruit and retain the best people in order to continue our progress. Changes that would single out VA employees for punishment by removing existing federal civil service rules not only put VA at a competitive disadvantage, but can ultimately harm VA's ability to best serve Veterans," Victoria Dillon, a spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
The VA also reports that approximately 3,000 employees representing about one percent of its workforce have been "removed from service" each of the past two years "due to poor performance or misconduct."
Boehner said his district offices in Ohio handle more than 100 veteran cases each week to address the benefits backlog, safety incidents, construction delays and even preventable deaths.
"Over at the VA, there's no accountability, only business as usual," Boehner bemoaned. "At the VA facility in Dayton, Ohio, hundreds of patients were exposed to hepatitis B and C and while this was under investigation, the director of the hospital collected a five-figure bonus, and then he was promoted.
"I'd thought I'd seen the worst of government, but this goes beyond the pale," he continued, exasperated. "If you're presiding over a bureaucracy that's failing our veterans, you shouldn't be receiving bonuses. You should be gone. It's time to clean up this mess, to bring real accountability to the Veterans Administration."
Rep. Jeff Miller, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, said the committee has submitted almost 100 unanswered requests to the VA - with one inquiry having dragged on for more than 600 days.
"The safety of our veterans is paramount. Service to our veterans is paramount," Miller, R-Fla., said. "But we cannot continue to promote people who have not done their job and give them bonuses, even when there have been preventable deaths at their facilities."
The speaker has refused to call on Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign, but he criticized his department for failing America's 22 million veterans and their families.
"The secretary needs to have more authority to manage his own department. It's as simple as that," Boehner said. "That's what this bill is here for."
Asked why it has taken 13 years for Congress to recognize the need for overhaul, Boehner blamed the VA for ignoring oversight requests from congressional investigators.
"We continue to get stonewalled, road blocked," Boehner said. "There are some serious problems over at the VA and this is just another tool to try to help the secretary better manage his department."