Missing pieces: No word yet on VA Secretary

Between the election and Christmas, Donald Trump’s pace at nominating Cabinet officials remained steady, and roughly equivalent to the transitions of his successors. With the inauguration just eleven days away, though, the transition has stalled on the final two spots since the holiday. The Agriculture spot does not have any particular significance to Trump’s campaign agenda, but the Department of Veteran Affairs was a central issue for Trump in both the primaries and in the general election. So far Trump has yet to name a replacement for VA Secretary Robert McDonald, but the Washington Post reports that it’s not for lack of trying:

In recent weeks, Trump has met with retired military leaders, politicians and health-care executives, some of whom would help diversify a Cabinet he is under pressure from some on his team to make more inclusive. He has met with some candidates multiple times and extended preliminary offers to others. Yet several qualified contenders have turned him down.

Reince Priebus, Trump’s incoming chief of staff, has urged the president-elect to expand the VA search to more women and minorities, according to a source close to the transition who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person was not authorized to discuss internal discussions publicly.

Trump met last week with Leo MacKay Jr., a senior vice president at Lockheed Martin who was a deputy VA secretary under President George W. Bush. But MacKay, who is black, is reluctant to leave the private sector, the source said. In December, Trump officials approached Navy Adm. Michelle Howard, the first woman and African American to become a four-star admiral. But she declined to pursue the post.

Hmmmm. Why wouldn’t these two candidates jump at the opportunity to lead a long-troubled bureaucracy that has chronic defects that cost veterans their lives? McKay has a good gig already and he’s already done his time at the VA, so his reluctance is understandable. His nomination would have impressed Congress, but Barack Obama brought in a private-sector exec in Robert McDonald, and it hasn’t changed much.

Admiral Howard’s candidacy has flown under the radar, but she would have been a good choice for Trump if he wants to maintain continuity rather than effect a transformation of the VA service model. After seeing what happened with General Eric Shinseki, though, Howard probably has little appetite for managing reform around the edges and fighting the entrenched bureaucracy. As Shinseki discovered, the civil service is a lot different from the military when it comes to taking orders.

Basically, the problem with this position is that it’s no-win under the current single-payer model, married to civil-service protections. That’s why it’s not a surprise to find out who might be the last man standing for the job, which comes far down in the Post article:

The leading candidate left appears to be Pete Hegseth, 36, a Fox News Channel contributor and Iraq War veteran. Hegseth is a former president and chief executive of the conservative Concerned Veterans for America. The group, founded just four years ago, has an influential role in the Trump transition. From his perch at Fox News, Hegseth has been a harsh critic of McDonald’s leadership.

But some of Trump’s advisers think that Hegseth, while aligned with Trump ideologically, does not have enough experience to lead such a massive agency, according to the source close to the transition team. Hegseth also has alienated traditional veteran service organizations by vowing to fire under-performing employees and turn over more of the system to private doctors, a change they warn would privatize the safety net for those who served.

Pete’s a friend, but he’s also been a tireless advocate for real reform at the VA. Of all the people mentioned, Pete is the only one who has actually produced an extensive, detailed, and bipartisan proposal for exactly the kind of bold action that Trump promised during the campaign, as I wrote at the end of November. Pete may not have the large-org executive experience that the position would require, but there would be room for that kind of experience in deputy-secretary positions that would also require Senate confirmation.

If the Trump administration wants bold reform, the VA will need a Secretary with a commitment to that plan and the requisite media and political skills to get Congress to come along on it. If they just want to improve the VA along the margins, then they can appoint a more traditional candidate for the job — but the traditional candidates don’t want to spend the next few years trying to manage the built-in failures of the VA’s single-payer, civil-service bureaucracy. The new president might not have much of a choice in the matter.

As Reuters notes, there are other Cabinet-level positions still outstanding as well, but only the two major agencies have no proposed leadership: