If Denis McDonough is confirmed as the next Veterans Affairs secretary, he won’t bring any personal military experience with him to the job, becoming only the second non-veteran to lead the department.
But on Wednesday, the former White House chief of staff vowed to use his unique background in navigating federal bureaucracy and his passion for serving veterans to improve services at the massive government agency, which has spent much of the last decade moving from controversy to controversy.
“This won’t be easy,” McDonough, 51, told members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee during his confirmation hearing. “The Department of Veterans Affairs faces great challenges, challenges made even more daunting by the coronavirus pandemic. Its capabilities have not always risen to the needs of our veterans.
“If confirmed, I promise to fight every single day to ensure that our veterans have the access to the world-class, compassionate care they have earned.”
McDonough, a surprise pick by Biden to oversee the veterans department and its $243 billion annual budget, faced largely friendly questioning from senators on the committee and is expected to easily be confirmed to the Cabinet post early next month.
But committee members also warned that restoring and maintaining trust in VA — which provides health care for more than nine million veterans and benefits for millions more — won’t be as simple, especially with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic ravaging the nation’s veterans community along with many others.
“Your chief responsibility during this unprecedented time will be to save as many lives as possible,” Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., stated bluntly at the hearing. “There is a lot riding on your shoulders.”
McDonough listed several immediate priorities for when he takes office, starting with “getting our veterans through this pandemic.”
More than 200,000 VA patients and 18,000 staffers have contracted the virus in the last 11 months, and more than 8,500 patients and 120 staffers have died from complications related to COVID-19.
The nominee also committed to finding ways to improve service members’ transition to civilian life — including making available “the education and jobs worthy of their skills and talents” — as well as addressing veterans’ suicide, homelessness and caregiver support.
As he has in other recent comments, McDonough also committed to “ensuring that the VA welcomes all our veterans, including women veterans, veterans of color and LGBTQ veterans.” Fixing those issues will involve both community and interagency cooperation, he said.
“I’ve been given a clear mission by President Biden: To be a fierce, staunch, advocate for veterans and their families,” McDonough said. “If confirmed, I will embrace that assignment with the solemnity it demands.
“This is not a mission I take on alone. Every federal agency has a role in supporting our veterans. If confirmed, I will make that happen, because when it comes to supporting our veterans and their families, every American has a role to play.”
Senators quizzed McDonough on issues like GI Bill benefits (he promised to work with Congress on better policing of problematic for-profit colleges), privatization of health care services (he said outside medical care will remain “a key part” of VA care plans) and sexual harassment at VA facilities (he vowed to make stopping sexual misconduct a “day one” priority).
Since the VA secretary post was elevated to Cabinet-level status, the only other nominee without a military background was David Shulkin, confirmed in early 2017.
The only one of the previous 10 secretaries to face any confirmation opposition from senators was Robert Wilkie, McDonough’s immediate predecessor, who was confirmed 86 to 9 in July 2018. All of the others were approved without any objections.
That tradition could resume with McDonough. Despite his close ties to both Biden and Obama, several Republicans on the veterans panel praised his past work and competency for the job. Ranking member Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, said at the end of the hearing he intends to support McDonough’s nomination when it reaches the Senate floor in coming days.
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.