National Security

With Shinseki Out, Who Will Obama Tap Next to Lead the Department of Veterans Affairs?

The next VA Secretary will need to press reset on an entrenched bureaucracy with surging demand.

The search for former Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki's replacement will require finding an individual who understands the plight of today's veteran, can influence a massive bureaucracy, and, many believe, is willing to assume a high public profile -- a person who possesses some of the very qualities that Shinseki did not have -- and then getting that person to agree to take a job few would want.

Faced with an increasingly rabid and bipartisan chorus calling for his ouster, President Obama on Friday morning accepted his cabinet secretary's resignation after an internal VA report found systemic problems among veterans seeking medical treatment. There have been calls for Shinseki to step down for weeks since the problems, first identified within the VA's Phoenix medical facility, surfaced and began attracting intense media and congressional scrutiny. But a fundamental challenge confronting the White House now is finding someone able to do what is widely seen as a virtually impossible job -- and then persuading them to actually take it.

Despite the dedication Shinseki, a wounded Vietnam war veteran and retired Army four-star general, demonstrated in the job, many thought he was not able to grasp the scope of the bureaucracy he led. He was also not seen as being aware of the widespread problems within an entrenched bureaucracy festering at multiple levels below Shinseki's perch in Washington.

"I think it needs to be somebody who understands what it means to wade through bureaucracies and get things done quickly," said Doug Wilson, who ran the Pentagon's sprawling public affairs apparatus and now works on many veterans issues. "In bureaucracies, people often speak Hobbit. You need a fluent Hobbit speaker with clout."

Members of Congress, individuals associated with veterans groups and others were disinclined to name publicly individuals who should replace Shinseki, but a handful of names have emerged, including a slew of retired general or flag officers, from Mike Mullen to Stanley McChrystal or Peter Chiarelli. John McHugh, a former Congressman and now the sitting Army secretary, and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus were also on the lips in Washington on Friday. And Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army's chief of staff, and James Webb, the former senator, Marine, and Navy secretary have all been mentioned as a possible successors. Someone with corporate leadership experience, coupled with a military background, could also be seen as a good fit. That very short list would include someone like Fred Smith, the chairman and CEO of global mailing giant FedEx, who served as an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1966 to 1970.  

As it became clearer that Shinseki would not remain at the VA for much longer, there was speculation the White House would have to name a successor at the same time it announced Shinseki's departure. But Obama instead tapped Shinseki's deputy, Sloan Gibson, to run the department while the White House looks for a permanent  replacement for Shinseki. Gibson, just installed in February, arrived at the VA after five years running the United Services Organizations, or USO, the military morale and welfare organization best known for bringing actors, musicians, and NFL cheerleaders out to entertain troops in the field.

But the search for Shinseki's replacement will likely take time, and Gibson could preside over the troubled agency for several weeks and months. Shinseki had begun the process of removing lower level managers at the heart of the problems in Phoenix and, potentially, elsewhere; Gibson will be expected to continue cleaning house where it's needed. In the meantime, the Department of Justice will continue its investigation to determine if there was any criminal wrongdoing at the Phoenix facility as well as across the VA.

There is also an important political dynamic at play. Congressional ire over the scandal is continuing to build, and an array of committees in both the House and the Senate are planning to hold hearings probing the VA when lawmakers return from recess. Those sessions are certain to be extraordinarily combative, and the White House will likely want Gibson to assume the difficult job of absorbing those blows now in the hope that some of the political controversy will die down by the time the eventual nominee is picked and sent to the Senate for confirmation.

Tom Tarantino, policy associate at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said name recognition in a VA chief is a huge plus. The next secretary, he said, needs to be exactly what Shinseki was not.  When IAVA surveyed veterans, more than half couldn't say who Shinseki was.

"Shinseki's biggest failing is he was practically invisible to the veterans community," Tarantino said. "In that position, you should be the chief veteran of the United States, you should be the face of veterans, and as popular as the secretary was outside of the VA, if no one can name you, that's a problem."

In the blaze of press releases from Capitol Hill that followed the president's decision to allow Shinseki to resign, one thing neither Democrats nor Republicans discussed was money. That's because many perceive VA's problems to be about mismanagement and inefficiencies within an already bloated bureaucracy.

"The VA's budget is not the issue," said Jake Wood, CEO of Team Rubicon, a non-profit organization that helps veterans reintegrate into society. "You can look at the budgets that they've gotten for the last 10 years and in a decade of cuts elsewhere, the VA budget has increased every year."

Indeed, the VA's budget has gone from $98 billion in 2009 to $140 billion in 2013. In that time period, the VA's staff increased by nine percent. For those reasons, many believe that what the VA needs is a leader with experience streamlining bureaucracies in the corporate world.

"A proven executive with corporate ‘turnaround' skills," said Norton Schwartz, the former Air Force Chief of Staff, in an emailed response to what characteristic would be best for the VA.

That could mean a corporate executive with a military background, like FedEx's Smith, might be the right fit. 

"Smith would be a compelling candidate," said Wood. He's a brilliant guy and has been able to build and run a global organization. He may be approaching that moment in his life that he's made his money and may be interested in public service."

As a corporate chief, Smith earns millions of dollars - $14 million in 2012. A cabinet secretary  would earn around $200,000 as a cabinet member. 

Lauren Jenkins, vice president of ScoutComms, a veteran's advocacy and consulting firm, said military experience should be a key qualification for any future secretary.

"What VA really needs from any leader is someone who can fight through the bureaucracy of a large government agency, and that's where a military leadership background is important because to be a three or four star general, you need to be able to play the game and play it well."

Members of Congress, meanwhile, urged the president to appoint a bold leader who's not afraid to bring down the axe.

"Right now, VA needs a leader who will take swift and decisive action to discipline employees responsible for mismanagement, negligence and corruption that harms veterans while taking bold steps to replace the department's culture of complacency with a climate of accountability," said Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, the chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. "VA's problems are deadly serious, and whomever the next secretary may be, they will receive no grace period from America's veterans, American taxpayers and Congress."

In the end, the VA's leader must be able to articulate, to the White House, Congress, veterans and the American public and the media just how things are being fixed and what progress is being made. But to Wilson, the former Pentagon official, public relations isn't the only important thing.

There are the "quiet leaders,"  like Shinseki, and then there are the "showboats," said Wilson, who believes the next VA secretary must possess a lot of skills - public relations being only one of them.

"The showboats aren't going to make much of a difference at all, other than to be invited on the next cable show," he said. "The ability to be glib on Morning Joe should not be the defining qualification."

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Green Day

The Obama administration's ambitious new clean energy policy has the coal industry on the warpath.

On Monday, the Obama administration will lay out the centerpiece of its efforts to fight climate change, an ambitious but convoluted plan to clean up greenhouse gas emissions from the U.S. electricity sector, the biggest single source of the gases that contribute to global warming.

If fully implemented over the next few years, the plan -- which calls for pushing dirtier power plants off the grid -- could go a long way toward ensuring that the United States meets its own informal targets for greenhouse gas reductions. What's more, such an ambitious step at home will give the Obama administration a powerful argument to take to next year's big international climate confab, the 21st U.N. climate summit, where the world will gather yet again to try to craft an international agreement to fight climate change.

But the plan will also further fuel a domestic political firestorm that will likely continue for the rest of Obama's presidency. Conservatives and some business groups, such as the United States Chamber of Commerce, say the Environmental Protection Agency's new climate rules are just the latest campaign in a "war on coal."

They worry the new rules will kneecap the economy, cost billions of dollars per year, and put the United States at a disadvantage compared to economic rivals such as China. Critics say the new rules will force power companies to shut down coal plants; even energy analysts concede that tougher standards will hammer the U.S. coal industry, which is already reeling thanks to the natural gas revolution.

The proposed new rules essentially aim to reduce the amount of coal-fired power plants in the nation's electricity system; the actual targets for how much emissions reductions the administration wants to see will come Monday. The power sector accounts for one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and coal plants produce more greenhouse gas emissions than any other type of generation.

"Controlling emissions from power plants represents the single-greatest opportunity to reduce U.S. emissions overall," noted Kevin Kennedy, the director of the U.S. climate initiative at the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank.

The rules are the follow-up to a similar step announced last year, which put sharp limits on how much carbon new power plants will be able to emit. Those rules, which stipulated that new power plants can only emit about 1,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour of generation, effectively rule out coal-fired plants being built in the future. (The cleanest coal plants today produce nearly twice that amount.)

The new standards, in contrast, take aim at the existing U.S. power generation fleet, the world's second largest. They are meant to prod states to come up with ways to generate electricity that are, on the average, cleaner than today. That could be done by shuttering coal plants, using more natural gas for power, installing lots of renewable energy, or using electricity more efficiently.

The White House argues that the new rules will be a key part of pushing the country further toward a low-carbon future. While the United States has done a better job at cutting emissions than any other country over the last 10 years, many of those gains could be reversed without tough new guidelines, the administration says.

The big questions to be answered next week are: Just how much does the administration propose to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and compared to what year? Both questions matter a lot. Deep cuts would be harder to achieve without expensive and still-untested technologies. And the U.S. energy sector has already cut emissions over the last decade thanks to the boom in relatively clean natural gas and the recession, which slashed demand for electricity.

Power companies want to measure cuts against 2005, when greenhouse gas emissions in the energy sector peaked in the United States. Big utilities are especially worried because they have already spent billions of dollars to retrofit existing coal plants to meet other environmental rules, and they worry the new guidelines will drive them into early retirement.

"The regulations should not force the premature shutdown of existing, well-controlled coal-fueled power plants and strand the billions of dollars invested in those plants to control other emissions," said Melissa McHenry, a spokesperson for AEP, Inc., one of the biggest power companies in the United States.

Power companies are waiting on the exact details of the proposal, but legal challenges against the EPA are all but guaranteed; nearly all of the Obama administration's climate rules have been challenged in court.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, want to measure cuts against the current, relatively clean power sector, because that would mean locking in further cuts to already-low levels of energy-sector emissions. The administration could propose a third way, measuring cuts against the average carbon emissions of the last few years. Either way, it will set the stage for years of political and legal wrangling that is likely to last until the end of the Obama administration.

As important as the new standards will be for reshaping the U.S. energy sector, they could also play a big role internationally. Climate scientists, led by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, keep warning that the whole world needs to start making serious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid catastrophe later in the century.

So far, though, a binding international agreement that would force the United States, Europe, China, and other major economies to cut their emissions has proven elusive. Developing countries, led by China, argue that rich countries are to blame for two centuries' worth of dirty growth; rich countries counter that China, India, and the like are driving most of the new growth in the greenhouse gas emissions that could push the world to dangerous levels of atmospheric carbon concentrations and make for a hotter planet.

But implementing tough new power plant rules could give the Obama administration a great trump card to play at the next round of international negotiations in Paris late next year, said Kevin Book, founder of ClearView Energy Partners, LLC, an energy consultancy, in a research note.

Simply put, the new rules could make it easier for the United States to penalize other countries that don't take similar steps to clean up their own economies. That could come in the form of tariffs, such as added duties on imports from countries with laxer environmental rules. And that would serve a double purpose: protect the U.S. economy from potential harm thanks to tougher rules, and spur foot-dragging countries to play ball.

"Whether or not the Administration actually proposes border taxes, the White House will have acquired leverage for international negotiations," Book wrote.

Mark Wilson - AFP - Getty