Gazette opinion: Tester’s due diligence protects U.S. veterans

by Billings Gazette

If you love the Constitution, you should love the results of the recent actions of the U.S. Senate in the case of Dr. Ronny Jackson, who was President Donald J. Trump’s nominee to head Veterans Affairs.

For a moment, let’s set aside the flurry of invective which came from Trump on social media as senators from both parties refused to forward Jackson without a deeper vetting process.

That’s why we can be proud of Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the ranking Democrat on the committee. He, along with Georgia’s Sen. Johnny Isakson had to become the de facto vetting committee on a candidate that was ill prepared to do an incredibly important job.

The Constitution is a wonderful thing: It allows the president to nominate cabinet-level positions, and the Senate to confirm (or deny) those appointments. Understood in that equation is that the White House should only forward qualified, vetted candidates. If that fails, the Senate has the sworn duty to stop someone who hasn’t been properly vetted or is unqualified.

In the case of Jackson, both are true. For the American people, the system works. Check and balance.

When Tester dared to disclose the failed or absent vetting process the White House used to clear Jackson and take his concerns to fellow Senators, Trump took to Twitter to unleash a Tweet-storm aimed at Tester. Trump didn’t take a similar tact with Sen. Johnny Isakson, the Republican chairman.

While it’s important to note that several of the claims against Jackson, including that he caused damage to a car while driving under the influence, have not been substantiated, others have been. And let’s remember why these allegations surfaced in the first place.

When the Veterans Affairs Committee originally started looking into Jackson as a part of the normal vetting process, the White House provided none of the information the Senate asked for, leaving the job of background and vetting to the Senate.

It was only after reports of Jackson’s creating a hostile work environment and possibly handing out medication came to light that the White House issued its own report. That leads us to wonder: If it had this information, why not provide it sooner? And if it didn’t have the report ready, how can we trust that it wasn’t done as a means to help cover the poor job it apparently did vetting Jackson?

Yet all of these reports of Jackson as the derelict doctor, handing out powerful drugs as if they were candy as whistleblowers alleged, distract from the critical fact: Ronny Jackson is not qualified to run VA, an organization with 377,000 employees, a $198 billion budget and 9 million veterans to serve.

While some of the reported incidents that originally surfaced have not been substantiated, those are secondary to Jackson’s qualifications. Because the White House refused to vet its own nominee, it left that job to the Senate in which the process is admittedly more public.

For those of us in the media, we constantly fight for more information and more documents. We do that so that we can report truthfully and hold those in power to accountability. Without the reports released by both Tester and Isakson, we could not do our job.

Trump’s call for Tester to resign is a convenient shifting of blame. If the White House believed so adamantly in Jackson, it should have taken the care to background him on a deeper, more confidential nature as it likely did with other candidates.

Consider the price Tester would have paid had he kept mum about the concerns he and his staff received. He would have lost his integrity and violated his constitutional duty to properly advise and consent to a key presidential appointment. The allegations would have dribbled out as Jackson took office, creating a bigger scandal that could have resulted in the ouster of yet another Trump Cabinet member – with the VA worse for the wear.

Isakson didn’t bash Tester. Instead, the Georgia Republican defended his Democratic colleague.

While the Jackson debacle made headlines last week, the Senate received little attention for unanimously approving two high-level VA appointments: Paul R. Lawrence, a vice president at Kaiser Associates with three decades’ experience in working with management of government programs, was confirmed as undersecretary for benefits. Joseph Falvey Jr. was confirmed as a new judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, bringing 30 years of legal and Marine Corps experience to the VA.

Tester and Isakson issued a joint press release to applaud those confirmations and to emphasize that they see working for veterans as a bipartisan duty.

The Senate – both Republicans and Democrats – should be applauded for not only doing their duty by the confirmation process, but they should be given extra credit for doing what the White House should have done in vetting the supremely unqualified Jackson.