Why the Lack of Accountability Matters

Oklahoma Republican Senator Dr. Tom Coburn released an 85-page report this week detailing the horrific scandals we have come to accept as routine at the Veterans Administration. Coburn, a retiring senator who is highly regarded on both sides of the aisle despite his right-wing views, said this in a statement released together with the report:

Over the past decade, more than 1,000 veterans may have died as a result of VA malfeasance, and the VA has paid out nearly $1 billion to veterans and their families for its medical malpractice … too many veterans who rely upon the VA are stuck in a bureaucratic maze that is inconvenient, unaccountable, inefficient, and limits choices with varying outcomes.”

The key word there is “unaccountable.”

The same is true about the IRS scandal. This week, House Republicans questioned IRS commissioner John Koskinen as to many of the circumstances surrounding the loss of the Lois Lerner emails. Koskinen was unfazed when Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) asked him why he hadn’t alerted the committee for two months after he found out the emails had been destroyed. He similarly saw no reason to alert any of the parties investigating the matter that there were a bunch of emails lost in a hard-drive crash because he didn’t think anyone had done anything wrong.

If you find Koskinen’s assertion that there was “no evidence that anyone consciously destroyed documents” hard to believe, you aren’t alone. A Fox News poll released Wednesday found that 76 percent think that the emails were deliberately destroyed. That majority crosses all party affiliation, as Republicans (90 percent), Independents (74 percent), and Democrats (63 percent) all believe that to be the case.

But as is the case with the VA, the heads of almost any government agency are shockingly unaccountable. No CEO in the private sector would be able to get away with saying what Koskinen did to Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT). Acknowledging that the IRS could have recovered the emails after learning of the crash while under subpoena from Congress, he said that they made no effort to do that because “it is difficult and was not the [IRS] policy at the time.”

Koskinen can say that because there is no mechanism in place to hold him accountable for what he says or does. The worst thing that can happen to him is what happened to former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki: he would be allowed by the president to resign.

Until we set up a mechanism that can effect some real consequences for this kind of behavior, expecting things to change at the IRS, the VA or any government agency is just wishful thinking.