Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., will leave Congress at the end of 2016 after serving for 15 years on Capitol Hill, six of them at the helm of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. That committee was overseeing the Veterans Affairs Department when news broke that veterans were dying while waiting for care. But it's rumored Miller may not be leaving Washington after all and could be President-elect Trump's top pick to head up the organization he spent years trying to fix in Congress.
In an exit interview with the Washington Examiner, Miller talked about what still needs to be done to give veterans better access to healthcare, who will take over his gavel at the head of the committee and what his future holds.
Washington Examiner: As chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, you've done a lot of work to try to improve the VA after the wait-time scandal. Now, as you're leaving Congress, what do you see as the biggest things that still need to be done?
Miller: One of the most exciting things now is that President-elect Trump will have an opportunity to move the VA forward without any preconceived notions of the way the federal government works. I think the VA still lacks in accountability and transparency and Mr. Trump has said over and over again on the campaign trail that accountability is one of the most important things to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Examiner: You've been mentioned as the possible next secretary of veterans affairs in Trump's administration. Is that a job you'd be interested in or have you talked with the transition team?
Miller: I have not talked to the transition team about it. It is very important that the person that takes the position of secretary is able to do what needs to be done and again, working through 350,000 employees, the vast majority of them who do the right thing for our veterans. You have to have a leader in a president that wants to make a change and Donald Trump is that change agent. So to answer your question, it's pure media speculation at this point. Everybody is trying to move chess pieces around the board. I'm focused on finishing my job as chairman of the veterans committee in Congress.
Examiner: Is it a job you would be interested in?
Miller: Any time the president of the United States calls you and asks you to be helpful, especially in an organization that I believe in, it's something you have to give very serious consideration.
Examiner: No matter who is the next VA secretary, what advice would you give him or her? What sort of things would you like to see in their 100-day plan, the first things they should tackle?
Miller: Again, transparency. The only way that the administration and the Congress can be partners in solving many of the problems that the VA faces is being transparent. We have to bring the department kicking and screaming unfortunately with a lot of the information that we request. Sometimes it comes in a fashion that is easy to look through and sometimes it is dumped on us in boxes as if somebody was pulling some type of fraternity prank. That's no way to fix a government agency.
Examiner: What is left on your to-do list during your remaining weeks as chairman?
Miller: We have a desire to at least get one more veterans omnibus bill passed. Unfortunately, it won't encompass some of the legislation that has cost attached to it because unfortunately many of the bipartisan offsets that we've used in the past have been taken off the table by my Democratic colleagues. So we're looking at trying to move some of the legislation that has no cost attached to it that's bipartisan, obviously many of the things that the secretary would like to see currently on his plate, I think we can move those. The problem is going to be time. Not necessarily on the House side, but on the Senate side, so it's probably going to have to be something that can be passed in the Senate with unanimous consent and that isn't easy.
Examiner: What are some of the policy provisions you're trying to include in the omnibus?
Miller: A lot of them are things like a public-private partnership in Omaha, Neb., where they are wanting to expand a medical center but the funds aren't there today, but the local community has amassed millions of dollars that they are willing to give to the VA. The VA has to be placed in a position where it can accept it. And this can be a model all across the country. And there are accountability measures that I think that can pass that I don't believe will bring a political fight to the table. We got a little bit of time, we've been working for two years on legislation and it'd be nice to go out of this 114th Congress with a new package. We're working the four corners, the two chairmen and ranking members, we're trying to work out a package. Hopefully Sen. [Johnny] Isakson says later today, we may know from the majority leader's standpoint what we might be able to pass.
Examiner: Both in this Congress and in the new Congress, do you see a willingness among lawmakers at large to do VA reform now that you don't see it in the headlines that much?
Miller: Well you do as a matter of fact. Unfortunately, you still see inspector general reports coming out of Phoenix that the wait time problem has not been solved and we have said time and time again that the way VA calculates their wait times is masking a longer period. Everybody needs to be honest with each other and if it's bad, then it's bad, but let's all work on it together. There still is a bipartisan approach to do things. The problem at the end of a two-year session is there's so much work that needs to be done, including a [continuing resolution] or an omnibus, whatever comes through, there's very little time to put a package together and then send it to the Senate to be passed and then on to the president.
Examiner: Looking into the next Congress, any bills you don't think you'll get to in the next couple weeks that you'd like to see introduced and passed early in the 115th Congress?
Miller: I would very much like to see the accountability and appeals reform legislation, the bill that we passed out of the House with a veto-proof majority. It would have to be passed again in the House and then hopefully the Senate would take it up. I think that it is so critical that we find a way to give the secretary the ability to discipline poor-performing employees. I mean, the taxpayers of the United States would be furious if they knew, and they now will because I'm going to tell you a story of an attorney that works for the department, I don't know if he's on suspension now or what his status is, but works for the department and because of the civil services rules, the IG came in, he was running a non-profit basically from his office at the VA, using the VA resources, not giving the money to the veterans. We're talking millions of dollars. In fact he drove a Rolls Royce. They were prepared to fire him, and he's now put his papers in to retire. That is asinine. That's the ability of our federal government to discipline. So I hope the new secretary will work closely with the Congress because I know how much Mr. Trump wants to change the VA to become much more responsible to the needs of the veterans.
Examiner: With your departure, the chairmanship of the committee will open up. Do you have any thoughts on who might serve in that position or other voices in Congress who might take the lead in the fight to reform the VA?
Miller: Well we've got more veterans coming into the Congress. There are four names that are currently being mentioned: [Reps.] Doug Lamborn, Gus Bilirakis, Phil Roe and Mike Coffman. All are very capable of chairing the committee and I have not favored one over the other. We're all friends and they all worked very diligently as this committee has done its work over the last six years that I have been chair.
Examiner: Would you expect some of the new veterans coming into Congress to serve on the VA committee?
Miller: I would think so. Interestingly enough, we used to have to look for people to fill positions on the VA committee. Now, actually, it's a committee that members seek out and we have to choose. So I haven't seen the list. I used to be on the steering committee, so I would see who is asking for what, but now that I'm departing, I don't know. But I would suspect absolutely they would be a great asset to the committee because they see the need for reform and they see a president coming into office who is willing to do what's necessary to make change.
Examiner: You've served as a bridge between troops and veterans' issues by serving on both committees, and analysts say that link will be missed. What can the two committees do to work better together?
Miller: I think whoever the chairman happens to be, working with [House Armed Services] Chairman [Mac] Thornberry is critical because the only thing that separates a veteran from their service time is just a piece of paper, the DD-214. It's unfortunate that I get from DoD many times that once the active duty person separates and becomes a veteran, they're not concerned. I know they are, but they become part of the VA system. We train people to become warfighters, we have to train them many times to become civilians again and prepare them for that civilian role and that's why the transition assistance program is so critical, which is something we passed several years ago, a mandate that the Defense Department has to prepare people to leave and it's still not where it needs to be. It needs to be much more robust, but it's a start.
Examiner: Anything you're looking forward to doing now that you won't be in Congress anymore?
Miller: Spending time with my family, obviously. I've been praying now for months as to what's next and those dates are coming soon.