Rep. Mike Coffman has been a harsh critic of the Veterans Affairs Department in recent months, blasting department leaders repeatedly for continued program mistakes and shortfalls.
On Wednesday, VA Secretary Bob McDonald reached his limit.
McDonald, a corporate CEO turned Cabinet secretary, angrily chastised Coffman after the Colorado Republican delivered another blistering rant about VA operations, turning a relatively sleepy budget request hearing before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee into a surprising defense of VA's progress.
Coffman — incensed over continued problems with construction of a VA hospital in Denver — called McDonald's characterization of the problem nonsensical and overly positive.
"That's characteristic of your glossing over the extraordinary problems confronted by your department," Coffman told McDonald. "This is a department mired in bureaucratic incompetence and corruption. I fundamentally believe … when this president ends his term, you will not have made a dent in changing the culture of VA."
McDonald called that attack "highly offensive" and told Coffman he was more concerned about reliving years-old missteps than fixing problems.
"I've been here six months," McDonald said. "You've been here longer than I have. If there's a problem in Denver, you own it more than I do."
The response — unusual for any congressional witness, let alone a high-ranking administration official unanimously confirmed by the Senate just a few months ago — drew gasps and chuckles from the crowd of veterans advocates and VA staff in attendance.
McDonald has spent the last few months working not only to correct problems in VA care delivery and operations, but also to reform the department's image.
In the months before and after his predecessor's resignation last May, VA was besieged with scandals concerning lengthy wait times for patients and data manipulation from administrators protecting their own bonuses.
McDonald also has made outreach to Congress a key point of his reform efforts, promising more transparency and a better working relationship with lawmakers. He has given out his personal cellphone number to dozens of senators and representatives, promising prompt responses and an open dialogue on all issues.
That made Wednesday's exchange all the more shocking, with McDonald glaring at Coffman as he dismissed accusations that no progress can be seen within VA.
"If you want, I can give you my cellphone tonight, and you can answer some of the calls, and hear from veterans about the difference that we make," McDonald said. "Or go on the websites, see what the veterans are saying there. Ask the" veterans service organizations."
Coffman brushed off the rebuttal, saying simply, "I don't think [change] is going to happen, but I hope it does."
The exchange came a week after McDonald and lawmakers involved in veterans' issues held a news conference at VA headquarters to discuss rebuilding the relationship between the two sides.
Lawmakers said they hope to highlight "good news" stories from VA while still providing close oversight of its programs and funding.
In testimony later in the hearing, representatives from the veterans community offered praise for McDonald's efforts so far, saying they have noticed improvements already. Committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., echoed that sentiment.
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.