Rep. Jeff Miller insists he has a largely positive view of the Department of Veterans Affairs, even if he has spent the last six years repeatedly blasting problems in the system.
"I hate the idea that I'm always out pounding on the Department of Veterans Affairs," the outgoing House Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman said in an interview with Military Times this past week. "There are hundreds of thousands of employees out there working hard, folks that go to work everyday and do good work.
"What they want is leadership. They want somebody to set the right tone, to understand the mission, and let nothing get in their way. Unfortunately, over the last several decades, it just hasn't been that way. I'm not talking just about the secretaries personally, I'm talking about leadership all the way at the top" in the White House.
Miller has been the main face of Republican VA reform efforts since the 2014 wait times scandal forced the resignation of then department Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Almost overnight, his committee went from a fundraising afterthought to required television viewing, with Miller and fellow members interrogating bureaucrats and harshly criticizing the White House for failing to take care of veterans.
Now the 57-year-old retiring Florida congressman is among rumored names to take over the top job at VA, after serving as a top veterans issues adviser to President-elect Donald Trump.
Miller has said several times he would consider a role within the new administration, even if it means walking into an agency where many currently see him as an adversary.
"We have to find a way to change the bureaucracy," he said. "The people the Department of Veterans Affairs serves are the most important priority, and too often they have it backwards. The department is not there to serve itself."
He sees the department — with 365,000-plus employees and an annual budget nearly topping $180 billion — as a vital public responsibility but also a behemoth in need of dramatic overhauls. His years of oversight work have convinced him that dismantling the system is foolish, but so is settling for small changes in operations and policy.
"What does the Department of Veterans Affairs look like 30 years from now?" he said. "I believe it will be vastly different than it is today, and maintaining the status quo will be harmful to veterans."
He has voiced support for looking into proposals advocated by Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative-backed group which has rankled many in the veterans community with their suggestion of splitting veterans health care programs into an independent entity competing with private-sector providers. He downplays concerns from critics who worry such plans are a step towards privatizing veterans' medical benefits.
"The only people that use the word ‘privatization’ are the Democrats and the unions," he said. "There doesn’t need to be a shut down. Discussions need to be had openly and honestly, with all stakeholders."
But in the short-term, the most likely approach for Republicans looking to address VA wait times and access will be an expansion of the Veterans Choice Card program, an initiative that Miller called one of his proudest accomplishments in Congress -- even if implementation has been less than what he hoped for.
The next VA secretary will have to convince Congress to extend that program past next year, even as congressional scrutiny over the department’s budget has increased.
"Since I came here in 2001, the department's budget has almost quadrupled, in a time of a declining veterans population," Miller said. "Granted, we’re coming off two wars and there is a surge in need at VA. But the dollars have been allocated, and unfortunately there have been instances where it’s not being spent well."
He has repeatedly called VA construction procedures broken and construction priorities out of sync with a shifting veteran population. The next administration will have to tackle how to provide more access to doctors and programs in under-served areas while shutting down excess, out-of-date facilities in others (a point that VA leaders have also echoed).
Miller said his biggest regret during his tenure as chairman was not advancing stricter accountability rules for the department, despite that being the focus of much of the committee’s work over the last two years.
He has frequently sparred with current VA Secretary Bob McDonald on that point, especially after administration officials announced earlier this year that they’d ignore firing rules for senior managers passed by Congress in 2014 because of concerns over their effectiveness and constitutionality.
McDonald has repeatedly said that more firings will not improve workforce production or morale, but Miller has charged that allowing too many incompetent or criminal employees to go unpunished has tarnished the image of the department.
But most of his barbs are still aimed at the departing commander in chief, Barack Obama, whom he says largely ignored veterans issues after a host of promises for reforms in early 2009.
"I believe that McDonald wanted to change the culture at VA, but has found it difficult without real support from the president," he said.
"Now is the opportunity, with a new president who is going to … push the limits, because he is a businessman who knows what it takes to be successful. Doing the same things over and over again has not served veterans well. We have got to look at ways to change, to divest of unused facilities, to make these things reality."
Miller was one of the guiding hands behind Trump’s 10-point plan for VA reforms, which includes an expansion of outside care options for veterans, a 24-hour White House hotline for veteran complaints, and finding a new secretary "who will make it his or her personal mission to clean up the VA," in the president-elect’s words.
Transition officials haven’t yet said whether Miller fills that requirement. For now, the eight-term congressman says he is open to serving a role to help or content to return to Florida for the next chapter in his career. Follow @LeoShane
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com .
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.