This week, I was eager to participate in a committee hearing regarding the state of veterans' health care.
As a member of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs and a member of the conference committee working to reach an agreement between the House- and Senate-passed legislation to improve care at VA health care facilities across the country, I was particularly interested in hearing from Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson at Wednesday's hearing. I used the opportunity to question Secretary Gibson about the steps being taken to address the lack of accountability within the Department of Veterans Affairs in light of the agency's repeated failure to clean up widespread misconduct, malpractice and scheduling manipulation dating as far back as April 2010.
Based on the responses I heard, I'm unfortunately not satisfied that the VA's culture is any different now than it has been. It's clear that for over four years, since a 2010 memo to VA Network Directors was first sent, the senior leadership in the VA has known about many of the problems that have come to light in recent weeks. The pervasive culture of cooking the books for personal benefit such as pay raises is absolutely inexcusable.
I pointed out to Acting Secretary Gibson that the problems we are now trying to fix lasted four more years within the VA because there was a culture of looking the other way when there was a criticism or question of accountability in place. I have become personally convinced that this begins and ends with a failure of senior leadership in the VA for years to overlook the manipulation of numbers to make things look better than they really were.
I am committed to personally seeing to it that this culture within the VA changes so that we have accountability from top to bottom in the senior leadership and management of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
I had the opportunity to meet one-on-one with Bob McDonald, President Obama's nominee to fill the role of Secretary of Veterans Affairs, in my D.C. office this week. I asked him some tough questions about his plans to implement major reforms in the VA if he is confirmed to run the agency. McDonald is a businessman, West Point graduate and former U.S. Army captain. To get the VA's problems under control, he needs to be the kind of leader who can get to the bottom of these systemic problems and give it a total scrubbing from top to bottom. I am optimistic about his chances of being approved by the Senate and optimistic regarding his performance in the role of VA Secretary.
Immigrants Flooding Across Southwestern Border
In the past nine months, more than 50,000 children and teenagers as well as mothers and infants have crossed the U.S. border into Texas illegally. Most are from Central America.
I spoke with Martha Zoller and Tim Bryant on WGAU radio in Athens, Ga., on Tuesday about this issue, along with several other topics. You can listen to the interview in its entirety here.
Our first priority in addressing this humanitarian crisis has to be securing the border, and I believe we should deploy the National Guard to the Mexican border to aid in this crisis.
A second step we must take immediately to address this crisis at the border is to ensure that those who have entered this country illegally can be quickly and efficiently returned to their home countries. Congress should amend a 2008 law that has had the unintended consequence of delaying the deportation of undocumented minors from countries that don't border the United States. I co-sponsored legislation introduced in the Senate this week that would treat all unaccompanied migrant children crossing our border with equality under the law whether they are from Mexico, Central America, or any other country.
Finally, we need this administration to fully enforce our nation's immigration laws to send a clear message to these countries that we will not tolerate those who illegally cross the border. The president should immediately and personally disavow all efforts to pursue amnesty through executive order so that parents will not be encouraged to subject their children to the dangers of an illegal border crossing.
To that end, I recently signed onto a bipartisan letter, along with nearly half of the Senate, insisting that President Obama send a clear message to these countries that those trying to enter the country illegally will not receive special treatment and will not be eligible for any kind of deferred action.
I am closely monitoring this situation, and I will keep comments and concerns from Georgians in mind should more action come before the Senate.
Crisis in Ukraine
The United States and European Union imposed new sanctions on Russia on Wednesday, as part of an overall strategy on dealing with the annexation of Crimea by Russia. From the earliest days of this conflict, I have said that the United States should impose strict sanctions against the Russians for their actions in Ukraine and particularly in Crimea.
In March, I introduced legislation with Sens. Dan Coats, R-Ind., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., calling for sanctions on the Russian Federation and those responsible for undermining the sovereignty, integrity and government of Ukraine to ensure there are consequences for their rogue actions. Additionally, I co-sponsored S.Res.378, condemning illegal Russian aggression in Ukraine. S.Res.378 passed the Senate overwhelmingly on Tuesday, March 11, 2014.
The vote was a clear indication by this Congress that we as a country will not stand for Russia's deliberate disregard for international law, and that we condemn President Putin's continued violation of Ukrainian sovereignty that is threatening the peace and security of the region. There must be consequences for the rogue actions by the Russian Federation and those responsible for undermining the sovereignty, integrity and government of Ukraine. We have to let Russia know that we fully expect them to withdraw from Ukraine, we expect them to be a better partner with the rest of the free world. And if they do not do that, then sanctions will ratchet up.
On Thursday, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 17, a passenger plane carrying nearly 300 people, was shot down in separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine. I am closely monitoring reports from this incident and my thoughts and prayers are with the families of those lost in this tragedy.
In Other News
This week in Washington, I met with Georgia State Senate Transportation Chair Steve Gooch and Georgia House Transportation Committee chair Jay Roberts regarding the future of the federal highway trust fund up for debate in the U.S. Senate. Additionally, I had the pleasure of talking about Georgia's agriculture priorities with Georgia Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall on Tuesday.
I was also delighted to thank the interns in my Georgia and Washington, D.C., offices this week, and get to know them better over a meal together. These young folks work hard to keep our offices running smoothly and efficiently during their time with us and we hope they learn from us, as we learn from them.
What's on Tap?
Next week, the Senate will vote on Julie E. Carnes of Atlanta to be a judge for the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Georgia, Florida and Alabama. Additionally, the House-passed highway funding bill will likely move to the Senate floor for debate. The Senate is also expected to work further on reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, which loses its charter at the end of September if no action is taken by Congress.