Sen. Johnny Isakson doesn’t believe that the Department of Veterans Affairs will ever be “fixed,” no matter what lawmakers do.
“VA is always going to be a work in progress,” the chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee said in an interview with Military Times. “You’re always going to have new challenges. Right now we’re dealing with Blue Water Navy benefits (from Vietnam) … and new caregivers benefits from the recent wars overseas.
“So it’s constantly changing, and you need to learn from the past how to make progress. Because if you don’t, you’re going to get a backlog of problems, and you’ll have a mess. And that’s what we’ve been dealing with for the last few years.”
For almost five years, the senior Georgia Republican has been at the center of those reform efforts, acting as a gatekeeper for legislation to dramatically expand VA community care programs, employee accountability rules and an expansion of GI Bill benefits.
Now the former Georgia Air National Guardsman is preparing to step aside from that role. He’ll leave the Senate at the end of this year, citing “mounting health challenges” including a Parkinson’s disease diagnosis.
His departure comes at a key moment for the committee and the department. With a presidential election looming next year, maintaining any focus on veterans issues could be a significant struggle. Keeping the committee’s work from collapsing into political infighting could be even more difficult.
And Isakson insists that despite some recent negative headlines, VA is in better shape now than at any point in the last five years.
“VA is going to have to work better in the future than it is working now, but it is working now,” he said. “A lot of people have perceptions that VA is only what you read about in the newspaper, and it’s not.”
Isakson became chairman only a few months after the 2014 wait times scandal that forced the resignation of then VA Secretary Eric Shinkseki and shook public confidence in the department.
That set off nearly four years of debate over the role of VA hospitals in an evolving American health care landscape, culminating in the passage of the VA Mission Act last summer.
The bill dramatically increased availability of outside care options for veterans enrolled in department medical coverage, and has prompted political fights over how much taxpayer money can be sent outside the department without “privatizing” key federal promises to veterans.
The 74-year-old Isakson was a central figure in crafting that legislation, navigating the bill between Democrats worried about private-sector creep into VA care and conservatives who wanted an even freer hand for veterans to choose their providers. The chairman said he is pleased with the results he has seen from the compromise over the last few months.
His work as chairman over the last few years has been part cheerleader, part chief critic for the department. He has praised VA Secretary Robert Wilkie for his work over the last year but also criticized Wilkie’s predecessor, White House physician Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, as a mess.
He also has publicly taken issue with President Donald Trump’s past comments about the late Sen. John McCain, calling the commander-in-chief’s attacks on the former POW unseemly, unfounded and not helpful to the veterans’ community.
Still, Isakson said the turmoil surrounding veterans issues in recent years has produced a silver lining: more people are paying attention to veterans issues and the $200-billion-plus department’s programs.
“We had a lot of scrutiny of VA in a confined period of time,” he said. “Because of that, we did a lot of reforms we might not have done otherwise. We had a lot of work to do, but we got a lot done.”
Among the accomplishments he lists during his time leading the committee are sweeping, multifaceted legislation like the Forever GI Bill (an expansion of post-9/11 GI Bill benefits), the VA Accountability Act (which eased rules for firing department employees accused of wrongdoing), an overhaul the VA’s appeals process and veterans suicide prevention efforts.
All of the bills were passed with bipartisan support and coordination, something Isakson hopes will be remembered as part of his 20-year legacy in Congress, especially as tensions on Capitol Hill continue to rise.
“The way you legislate is you set goals and you include people, not exclude them,” he said. “A lot of times in Congress, it’s a matter of attrition. But I always wanted to get Democratic votes.
“The Senate now, it’s a new day every morning. I don’t know where we’re going right now on the atmosphere. It’s pretty unpredictable. We’re getting to the point where we have to change something.”
That work will be left to the next chairman, still to be named by Republican leaders. Isakson said he is also hopeful the committee in the next year will finish work on expanding benefits for veteran caregivers and for “blue water” Vietnam veterans, two major issues he was unable to see to completion this year.
Isakson’s departure will also leave another hole in the declining number of older veterans in Congress. Of the 20 current lawmakers who served in the military before 1970, four — including Isakson — have already announced they’ll leave Capitol Hill next year.
The former national Guardsman has spoken more frequently in recent years about his personal connection to the veterans’ committee work. Although he never served overseas in Vietnam, Isakson said that “I lost a lot of friends there. They were my age … That hurts a lot, when you see 5,800 people dying over there.”
He hopes that his successor can keep that kind of focus on the work at hand, even as much of the public’s direct connection to the military dwindles.
“Less than 1 percent of the country today are defending the world for peace and prosperity, representing the United States of America,” he said. “That is unbelievable. It tells us how much we can be thankful for, that small a percentage can carry out that big a mission.
“They can because of the quality of our people, the quality of our equipment, and the fact that we as a country are committed to peace, tranquility and economic prosperity for all. We need to remember that.”
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.