Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., both agree there are systemic problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) that led to the deaths of at least 40 veterans waiting for care and a subsequent cover up of long wait times at a Phoenix facility. How much responsibility VA Secretary Eric Shinseki bears, however, is less clear cut.
"I give a lot of credit to [Eric] Shinseki. I think Secretary Shinseki has all the will in the world to do the right thing by veterans. He's totally committed. But he sits astride a very tough bureaucracy," Gates said in an interview with CBS' "Face the Nation" Sunday. He added that, in view, "the problem is below the Secretary."
Rogers, on the other hand, noted that Shinseki has been in his post for five years already, and that the House Veterans' Affairs Committee is using a subpoena to compel him to testify before Congress.
"That's a huge problem. You cannot -- as a veteran myself -- walk away, turn your back on what also appears to be a cultural problem throughout the Veterans Affairs of trying to make it look good without it being good," Rogers said in a separate interview. "And if you can't come up to Congress and say, 'Here's exactly how I'm going to fix it,' then he needs to move along."
Rogers said Congress has been "very generous" to the VA with money and their own efforts to improve mental health problems, service and access. But he sees repeated failure to "get it right" at the mid-management level, and he regularly hears problems from his constituents.
"That's a leadership problem. And, again, if Mr. Shinseki can't come here and tell Congress how exactly he's going to change that culture there, I think we need to find somebody who's willing to go in and shake up the Veterans Affairs so that their number one, two and third priority is taking care of the men and women who serve this country," he said.
Rogers is not alone in calling on Shinseki to resign. Three top senators and the nation's largest veterans' organization, the American Legion, have said he should step down. But others, including House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and the White House, have not gone as far.
That doesn't satisfy Rogers. "The president is going to have to get involved. He's going to have to make a decision on Mr. Shinseki. Just saying that he's okay and everything's fine is not going to work in a case were we know for a fact that veterans have lost their lives because of the bureaucracy inside the VA," he said.
Though Gates agreed that the problems in the system "need to be handled on an urgent basis within the executive branch" rather than waiting for the congressional investigation, he said he is hopeful that Shinseki will take immediate action and hold people accountable.
"I worked very closely with Secretary Shinseki and I know that he and I would agree to a lot of things. And unless he personally bird-dogged it, it was very tough for those things to get done in VA," he said.