Private Givers Can Open Up the Iron Triangle That Stultifies Vets Policy

Federal policy toward veterans is dominated by the “Big Six” interest groups: American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans, American Veterans, and Vietnam Veterans of America. While these powerful lobbies have notched many achievements, they have also made it extremely hard to introduce new ideas, program modernizations, or any sort of innovation into government services for vets. That’s why veterans have a disability system built on antiquated WWI-era concepts of what injured persons are capable of. That’s why our health system for veterans is outrageously lumbering and scandal-plagued.

By completely dominating the policy conversation, putting an inordinate focus on benefit payments, and frowning on new practices, the Big Six have had the effect of stagnating national approaches to veterans. They’ve promoted an inward focus on entitlements for vets, instead of an outward focus that would help vets bring their talents to bear in civilian society. Veterans are civic and economic assets, not needy victims, and veterans policies should be premised on helping them succeed in that way.

Instead, policymaking has aimed narrowly at expanding the V.A. It has often been premised too much on pity and too little on pride. And make no mistake: there is no clearer example of unbalanced political power in Washington than interest groups operating in the name of veterans. The veterans lobby comprised of the Big Six, the Congressional committees on vets, and the Veterans Affairs department (the largest and most scandal-plagued civilian bureaucracy in the entire Federal government) operate as an Iron Triangle. They jealously claim all issues touching on former servicemembers, define them narrowly, and cordon them off from change that would disrupt their status quo. 

It makes for a closed policymaking loop, with the interest groups dictating to the committees and the V.A. As former White House Domestic Policy Council staffer Yuval Levin once put it, “It is impossible to overstate the political power of the veterans interest groups over the V.A. The simplest way to describe it is that they get everything they want, period.”

While this dominance has borne fruit in areas like extraordinarily generous G.I. education benefits, it has also suffocated desperately needed reforms. Concerns about whether policies are truly the best ways to help vets flourish, or whether they are fiscally sustainable, are suppressed. Question the conventional wisdoms of the Iron Triangle and you will be hit with serious political repercussions. The effect is a one-way rachet in which benefits are perpetually expanded in existing forms, without reference to effectiveness and efficiency, without connection to the true long-term interests of most vets, without regard for the fiscal well-being of the country.

The veto power of the Big Six is exacerbated by a lack of high-quality research and alternative centers of expertise. Gary Schmitt and Rebecca Burgess of the American Enterprise Institute recently warned of “scholarly neglect” of veterans issues. New efforts “to generate knowledge about veterans and society are rare,” they note. The knowledge deficit is made worse by the fact that only a very small and shrinking percentage of our population has served in the military.

Philanthropy can provide valuable antidotes to this problem. Donors can fund research at think tanks and universities aimed at uncovering fresh approaches to unserved problems. The very participation of philanthropists in national debates helps break down the Iron Triangle that has stultified veterans policy. Donors don’t answer to the interest groups that so intimidate our political class. Their experiments don’t have to go through the Congressional committees, or be executed by the V.A. bureaucracy. Private givers have the ability to test, explore, and innovate in areas where the V.A. and Congress are completely bogged down in business as usual.

America’s veterans need much more willingness to explore untried methods of delivering training and services, based on high-quality, dispassionate research. Patriotic donors can help break logjams and deliver valuable breakthroughs, addressing urgent questions like:

• How should today’s mushrooming disability benefits for veterans be restructured to incentivize more independence, prosperity, and happiness among vets, and less dependency and depression?

• Can we improve health care for veterans both inside the V.A. and across society at large?

• What new tools could be employed to enhance mental health among vets?

• What talents do veterans bring to communities, and how can we maximize their use?

• What national challenges can former servicemembers help us solve in their civilian lives?

• How can vets fill crucial gaps in our economy?

• Could we harness military veterans for badly needed character building among 
young Americans?

• Which are the most effective nonprofit organizations that serve veterans? 

        In concert with many savvy donors, these are issues we are wrestling with at The Philanthropy Roundtable. If you’d like to play a role in injecting fresh energy and tested ideas into national policies toward the men and women who have worn our nation’s uniform, please contact us.

To be published in the Fall 2019 issue of Philanthropy magazine.

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