Shulkin Strikes Back After Being Fired As Veterans Affairs Secretary

Within hours after being fired as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin was fighting back.

Mere hours after it was announced that he was out as Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, David Shulkin was striking back, contending he was forced out because he opposed Trump Administration plans to privatize some department functions and that he wasn’t given a proper opportunity to respond to charges made against him regarding improper use of government resources:

Ousted Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is going down swinging.

Instead of disappearing into obscurity like others who were summarily fired by President Donald Trump, Shulkin is using his dismissal as an opportunity to step into the spotlight. Freed from the constraints of serving in the Trump administration, Shulkin is publicly — and loudly — raising red flags about what he sees as a sinister plot to privatize veterans’ health care.

Within hours of Trump’s announcement via Twitter that he is replacing Shulkin with White House physician Ronny Jackson, the newly unseated secretary had published an op-ed in The New York Times and conducted an interview with NPR.

Shulkin is flipping the script on an unspoken rule in Washington that fired Cabinet secretaries and other senior administration officials should keep their grievances to themselves out of respect for the president. But Trump’s unconventional presidency, which has spit out a string of jilted ex-staffers, is challenging that long-standing practice.

Former Trump administration officials are quick to anonymously lambaste the president and his team to reporters. And a small number have started doing it on the record.

Former chief strategist Steve Bannon infuriated Trump after his critical on-the-record comments in Michael Wolff’s recent book came to light. Former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman went on the reality show “Big Brother” after getting fired, where she repeatedly turned on her colleagues in the White House.

In contrast, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was also fired via Twitter, has said little so far about his own disagreements with Trump, only hinting at his frustrations in farewell remarks to State Department staff in which he called Washington a “mean-spirited town.”

Shulkin, for his part, blamed his ouster on “the ambitions of people who want to put VA health care in the hands of the private sector,” something he opposes, lamenting that a political power struggle over his department made it tougher to do the work of running and improving the VA.

“They saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed,” Shulkin wrote in his New York Times op-ed, published shortly after midnight on Thursday. “As I prepare to leave government, I am struck by a recurring thought: It should not be this hard to serve your country.”

Shulkin’s firing on Wednesday came after weeks of speculation that he would be removed as VA secretary, the latest in a string of personnel changes that has included the ouster of Tillerson, economic adviser Gary Cohn and national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Shulkin was the lone holdover from the Obama administration to continue serving under Trump, having led the Veterans Health Administration for two years prior to his confirmation as VA secretary.

Shulkin, according to aides, lost Trump’s confidence and infuriated senior administration officials, who were shocked when Shulkin told reporters he had the White House’s blessing to purge his department of his internal critics. Even as they batted down rumors that Trump would fire other senior members of his administration, White House aides had long ago stopped pushing back on stories saying Shulkin was on thin ice with the president.

(…)

In the interview with NPR, Shulkin lobbed even more pointed criticisms at the administration, alleging that he wasn’t permitted to defend himself in the aftermath of reports about his trip to Europe.

“There was nothing improper about this trip, and I was not allowed to put up an official statement or to even respond to this by the White House,” he said. “I think this was really just being used in a political context to try to make sure that I wasn’t as effective as a leader moving forward.”

And he referenced reports that White House political appointees were working against him from inside his own department.

“We’ve gotten so much done, but in the last few months, it really has changed,” Shulkin said. “Not from Congress, but from these internal political appointees that were trying to politicize VA and trying to make sure our progress stopped. It’s been very difficult.”

Shulkin laid out his case in more detail in his New York Times Op-Ed in which he defended his record and contended that he was forced out due to opposition to the Trump Administration’s desire to privatize some VA services:

It seems that these successes within the department have intensified the ambitions of people who want to put V.A. health care in the hands of the private sector. I believe differences in philosophy deserve robust debate, and solutions should be determined based on the merits of the arguments. The advocates within the administration for privatizing V.A. health services, however, reject this approach. They saw me as an obstacle to privatization who had to be removed. That is because I am convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans.

Until the past few months, veteran issues were dealt with in a largely bipartisan way. (My 100-0 Senate confirmation was perhaps the best evidence that the V.A. has been the exception to Washington’s political polarization). Unfortunately, the department has become entangled in a brutal power struggle, with some political appointees choosing to promote their agendas instead of what’s best for veterans. These individuals, who seek to privatize veteran health care as an alternative to government-run V.A. care, unfortunately fail to engage in realistic plans regarding who will care for the more than 9 million veterans who rely on the department for life-sustaining care.

The private sector, already struggling to provide adequate access to care in many communities, is ill-prepared to handle the number and complexity of patients that would come from closing or downsizing V.A. hospitals and clinics, particularly when it involves the mental health needs of people scarred by the horrors of war. Working with community providers to adequately ensure that veterans’ needs are met is a good practice. But privatization leading to the dismantling of the department’s extensive health care system is a terrible idea. The department’s understanding of service-related health problems, its groundbreaking research and its special ability to work with military veterans cannot be easily replicated in the private sector.

To be fair to the White House, a President is entitled to Cabinet Secretaries who are on board with the policies that he wishes to implement. Although a Cabinet Secretary or other Executive Branch official ought to be made to feel that they are free to disagree behind closed doors with the policy, and to argue their positions strenuously, once the President makes a decision it’s their job to either implement it or to resign if they cannot carry it out in good conscience. This is something that Hillary Clinton made note of in her book about her tenure as former President Obama’s first Secretary of State. In that book, she noted that there were several occasions when she disagreed with the policies decisions of the President, such as his early decision to decline to provide arms to Syrian rebels fighting the government of Bashar Assad. On those occasions, Clinton says she argued in favor of her position but that when the President made his decision she did her best to carry it out and to advocate for it in her role as Secretary of State. Shulkin’s job was to do the same thing and, if he couldn’t do so in good conscience, then he should have stepped aside rather than trying to resist the implementation of a policy that is, in the end, the call of the President regardless of whether he believes it to be right or wrong. If a Cabinet Secretary can’t do that, they should resign and, if they don’t and continue to resist then it’s perfectly proper for the Administration to fire him.

This isn’t typically how things go in Washington, of course. Usually when someone in Shulkin’s positions resigns or is fired they fade away into obscurity for at least some period of time. Perhaps they write a book about their experiences at some point, but I’m pretty sure that this is the first time that a fired high-ranking Executive Branch official has taken to the pages of a major newspaper mere hours after he was notified that he was fired to strike back at the President and the forces in the Administration arrayed against him. Indeed, one wonders if Shulkin didn’t already see the handwriting on the wall and have at least a draft of this Op-Ed ready to go long before yesterday afternoon. Whatever the case, though, the fact of the matter remains that a President is entitled to the Cabinet of his choice. If Shulkin didn’t fit in, then it was proper for him to go.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Military Affairs, Politicians, US Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Mu says:

    The question is only, did the gutless wonder actually make a call, or was it some political appointees with their own agenda trying to please DT with what they thought he would want.

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  2. James Pearce says:

    Ousted Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is going down swinging.

    Here in Denver, our new VA hospital is over a billion dollars over budget (not an exaggeration) and five years behind schedule (also not an exaggeration). Rep. Mike Coffman has been up their ass for years. He’s also been lobbying the president to fire Shulkin.

    That said, I’d love to hear the case for keeping Shulkin on the job.

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  3. Blue Galangal says:

    @James Pearce: Because our veterans’s health care shouldn’t be used in more of Trump’s grifting cash grabs? Because once the VA is gone, it will never come back? Because dumping 9 million veterans with high needs and expensive care on an already strained system will lead inevitably to death, bankruptcy, and homelessness, which is already at an unacceptably high level among those who served this country?

    Just like Social Security, the VA is seen as a cash cow for the Mercers and the Kochs. But – like Medicare – the only truly sustainable method of coping with a large population with expensive special needs is to distribute that risk among all taxpayers, not squeeze the system dry and leave the 99% huddled in their Hoovertown shanties. You can complain all you like about construction cost overruns but that is masking the real issue, which is who is responsible for our nation’s veterans and elderly. The answer is us.

    To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.

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  4. gVOR08 says:

    Shulkin is a doctor and experienced health care manager. He had joined the VA system as deputy administrator a couple years before Trump. Trump campaigned on improving the VA, which Shulkin was apparently doing. The Koch Bros et al wish to privatize the VA. If Trump wanted someone to pursue privatization, perhaps he should have stepped up and apponted such a person rather than a dedicated professional who had some institutional loyalty and wanted to follow Trump’s publicly stated goal of improvement.

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  5. Kari Q says:

    @James Pearce:

    Here in Denver, our new VA hospital is over a billion dollars over budget (not an exaggeration) and five years behind schedule…

    Since Shulkin only joined the department in 2015 and didn’t become head until 2017, I think this is proof of a problem before he joined. I know very little about Shulkin or why he was let go, but it sounds like he was trying to combat exactly this kind of situation. Do you have some information that indicates he was responsible for the situation?

  6. Scott says:

    I was not allowed to put up an official statement or to even respond to this

    some political appointees choosing to promote their agendas instead of what’s best for veterans

    Some things just don’t add up for me. Granted, I don’t know how things work but it seems to me that a cabinet secretary works for the President and the President alone. He doesn’t work for some White House political appointee nor the Chief of Staff. Shulkin acts as if he were just a powerless employee. He doesn’t name names and he doesn’t say who “they” are.

    If he didn’t have the gumption to tell a subordinate (even a political appointee subordinate) to go sit in the corner then he doesn’t have what it take to run a big organization like the VA.

  7. Andy says:

    I get my healthcare from the VA. I’m lucky that my clinic is very good and that my medical concerns are relatively minor.

    The VA has had major problems for almost as long as I can remember. No administration has been able to improve the situation much, despite promises to the contrary.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the problems are systemic, can only be fixed by Congress, and must be accompanied by more general, long-overdue reforms of the federal bureaucracy and processes.

    But few seem interested in that. Improving governance and federal reform have been notably absent from the platforms of both parties.

  8. Andy says:

    @James Pearce:

    I’ve seen the facility – it will be beautiful if/when it’s ever completed.

    Unfortunately, this is normal for big government projects – it’s not just the VA. That sad reality is that most big federal government projects are just as bad if not worse.

  9. Lounsbury says:

    Eh, somewhat precious to expect normal ‘expected behaviours’ to be followed when your orange creature is flouting them regularly. Rather like whinging on that Marquess of Queensberry Rules not being followed in a street knife fight. Terribly precious.

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  10. DrDaveT says:

    @Andy:

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the problems are systemic, can only be fixed by Congress, and must be accompanied by more general, long-overdue reforms of the federal bureaucracy and processes.

    I agree.

    Unfortunately, a prerequisite for fixing the problems is that you have to want to fix them. The party currently in power got there by claiming that public provision of services not only doesn’t work, it can’t work. They have been diligently working to make this true since Reagan was president.

    The last thing the GOP wants is to fix some major federal welfare program so that it works efficiently and effectively. They can’t afford the counterexample to their dogma.

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  11. James Pearce says:

    @Blue Galangal:

    Because our veterans’s health care shouldn’t be used in more of Trump’s grifting cash grabs?

    Sure, but what does that have to do with whether or not Shulkin has the top spot?

    @Kari Q:

    Do you have some information that indicates he was responsible for the situation?

    Well, it was in the job description…

    But there’s institutional responsibility, and there’s blame. Shulkin may not be to blame for the Denver VA’s situation (again, over budget with a billion dollar price-tag, years over schedule) but if heads were to roll, his would be among them.

    Here‘s what made Coffman so mad:

    In a letter to VA Secretary David Shulkin, Coffman — whose Aurora-area district includes the hospital — castigates the agency for picking Stella Fiotes to serve as its acting head of its division of acquisition, logistics and construction.

    That’s a step above her longheld role as chief of the VA’s office of Construction and Facilities Management — the same position she occupied when the VA hospital in Aurora spun out of control.

    We may see Stella Fiotes “retire” before we see any movement on the “privatize the VA” stuff. We might even see Stella Fiotes “retire” and no movement at all on any of the “privatize the VA” stuff.

    I don’t see Donald Trump privatizing the VA. One of the benefits of privatizing the VA, if you tend to believe privatizing things comes with benefits, would be to remove it from the meddlesome hands of dumbass politicians, and Trump’s hands are the most meddlesome we have.

    Besides, I don’t know about you, but I believe in the “free market” more than I believe in Donald Trump. Maybe we should privatize the VA to make sure he doesn’t ruin it. (Not arguing this seriously; it’s just a thought.)

  12. becca says:

    @DrDaveT: Goddamn Ronald Reagan. Goddamn Harlon Carter. Goddamn Newt Gingrich. Goddamn Grover Norquist. Goddamn Viagra.

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  13. steve says:

    I largely agree with you Doug, but I am not sure you describe what really happened. It sounds like, hard to be sure I grant you, that Trump chose Shulkin, who had his plans and goals, then Trump chose those working under him who had different plans and goals. A good leader would have chosen his department head, laid out his goals, then chosen subordinates that would support the person he chose to lead, or just let that department head choose their own assistants.

    Steve

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  14. Andy says:

    @DrDaveT:

    The other side of that coin are the Democrats, who seem to love federal government solutions, but put little effort into good or effective government – a dissonance I continue to find bizarre.

    As I noted, neither party is remotely interested in the kind systemic government reform that is necessary. Until someone is we will continue to have a federal government that underperforms and is unable to competently do basic things like build hospitals, create IT systems, procure weapon systems, or even create a website for an administration’s signature health care program. The feds can’t even hire employees competently resulting in thousands of positions going unfilled.

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  15. MarkedMan says:

    @Andy:

    this is normal for big government projects

    FTFY. In industry, most projects have overruns. In fact, in some industries, most project fail. Some industries have failure rates as high as 70%. A very insightful book on this phenomena, “The Mythical Man Month”, was written by an IBM exec in the mid ’70s, and has two or three new editions with updates. I last saw an interview with the author a decade or so ago, and he commented that things had not really gotten better.

  16. MBunge says:

    @Blue Galangal: Because our veterans’s health care shouldn’t be used in more of Trump’s grifting cash grabs?

    It’s clear the problems with the VA both predate and go beyond Donald Trump. I’ll also bet a dollar you don’t have the slightest idea whether Shulkin was doing a good or a terrible job. But you just keep focusing on “The Big Picture” and how the other side is responsible for all evil in the world.

    Mike

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  17. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @James Pearce: What you’ve described is a function of Fed Gov’t contracting…not a Cabinets Secretary’s role. You clearly have no idea what a Cabinet Secretary does nor the constraints that GSA contracting present to internal department leadership achieving their desired goals. Please…dazzle us with more inna-net expertise.

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  18. MarkedMan says:

    @Andy:

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the problems are systemic, can only be fixed by Congress, and must be accompanied by more general, long-overdue reforms of the federal bureaucracy and processes.

    Here’s a contrasting viewpoint. When Obamacare reforms were instituted, I started researching the effects it would have on my company and the industry in general. Along the way, I discovered that the payer or provider with the most satisfied patients was the VA, by far. It wasn’t even close. But at the time, there were essentially two parallel VA systems: one for vets from the WWII era up to and including the first Gulf war, and the second for the Afghanistan/Iraqi wars. The former made up the bulk of the patients and they were the satisfied ones. But the latter has begun to overwhelm the system, and the VA is not adapting fast enough for their needs. There were a number of reasons for this but the primary one is not well known. It turns out that the survival rate for combat industries remained about the same from WWII, Korean War, Vietnam War, and the first Gulf war. Despite all the improvements in medicine, it barely moved the needle. But when the A/I wars started, the medical command decided to focus on the treatment system as a whole rather than just pursue the next new technology, and they dramatically improved the survival rate. Unfortunately that also meant a huge influx of ex-soldiers with major and traumatic injuries, especially head injuries, multiple limb amputations, etc. In other wars, they would have died at the front. In this war, once they made it back to the US they were discharged and their treatment and care became the VA’s responsibility. (A bit of an oversimplification but essentially true.)

    In years past, this would have meant that congress and the military would work together to identify the problem, understand how many badly injured soldiers were going to show up, when that would happen, and what kind of special facilities and resources would need to be built to support them. They would have allocated the money and got it started and the various congressional oversight committees would quietly make sure it stayed on track in a bipartisan way.

    Unfortunately for the new vets, we have had Republicans in charge either in the executive, the congress or both for most of this time. And the modern Republicans are a bunch of lazy *ss know nothings who spend all their time sucking up to moronic libertarian billionaire hobbyists who tell them they don’t have to understand anything but just sprinkle the magic privatization fairy dust on everything and they can get back to banning abortion or railing about teh gays, and the oversight committees can focus on emails and Benghazi.

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  19. Jim Brown 32 says:

    Here is the elephant in the room that ties all this madness together: Contrary to how most American would view the world, there is a group of American (and European) Oligarchs that have looked at what the Russian Oligarchs have done in Russia and view it a good thing. They want some of that in their own back yard. Auctioning off public sector services is the first step in that process

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  20. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @Andy: Its not bizzare if you understand their actual objectives. Both parties are fund raising schemes that peddle influence as their product. If you actually solve a problem…there is no demand to have it fixed and therefore no more stimulus for people to write checks to have said problem solved. Its your classic reverse incentive model. In the last 30 years, we’ve clearly entered the Twilight Zone, where, the parties now invent problems via culture war wedge issues that they convince donors that coffers must be filled so they can stand up against [Party x] to defend you.

  21. Andy says:

    @MarkedMan:

    You had me until your last paragraph. I am one of those new generations of veterans.

    And it’s not just the VA. I was a federal civil servant for about 5 years (DoD). Here’s the story I’ve told before on just the hiring process:

    The position I eventually took was vacant for a couple of years because it was coded wrong against the official manning document. They eventually got it re-coded, which changed the job description and grade – a long process that took many months. Then it was another 6 months to get the position posted to USA Jobs. That’s when I came into the picture and I applied. Three months go by and I get a notification that there was a problem with the original advertisement and the position would need to go back to USA Jobs. Two months later and it was back up on the website. I applied again. Three months later I was selected for the position and got the tentative hiring offer. Another series of SNAFU’s delayed my actual start date. All told, it was almost a year from the time I first applied until my first actual day of work. And the organization had gone without anyone in that position for much longer than that.

    My story is unusual – four to six months is more typical to get someone hired into a position, not including the time it takes to get a position advertised. Adding that in, most positions are gapped by about a year, depending on circumstances. It gets quicker the higher up the food chain you go. For example, an SES that was fired (child pornography) and six months later they had a replacement. So, once you reach a grade where you’re in charge of hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of employees, it ONLY takes six months to get a replacement.

    That was just one example. My time in government was a real eye-opener.

    The foundations of the federal government are rooted in the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s. Everything since then has been mostly iterations and band-aids. The federal government needs real reform aimed at effective governance and that’s a goal that neither party has shown any interest in it.

    As for the Democrats, I recommend you go back into the Daily Show archives and watch the segment with Nancy Pelosi and John Stewart soon after the ACA website debacle. That segment is emblematic of the Democratic shoulder-shrug, what-me-worry stance on effective government.

    Full disclosure: I do not support GoP efforts at privatization of government functions. I’ve seen the effects of that personally and know that in most cases it results in corruption and graft.

  22. Barry says:

    In terms of hiring, I’ve got matching stories:

    1) Interviewing with a company when the hiring manager had not been hired yet (as in even identified).

    2) Responding to a job board ad for a job in my hometown in Michigan, only to find that it was actually in Maryland. The HR ‘person’ blithely explained that they had put in the location of *HR*, not the job itself. Which meant that anybody in Maryland searching would not have found that job.

    3) The job I left in September has not been filled yet, despite it being not too exotic of a position.

    4) Not being able to be hired in a position due to failing a 15 minute speed math test. Three quant degrees and twenty years of working in quant jobs didn’t matter.

  23. Blue Galangal says:

    @James Pearce:

    Besides, I don’t know about you, but I believe in the “free market” more than I believe in Donald Trump. Maybe we should privatize the VA to make sure he doesn’t ruin it. (Not arguing this seriously; it’s just a thought.)

    Because the free market has already done such a great job with providing healthcare to elderly, sick, disabled, and poor Americans. For instance, Medicare wasn’t created to address a specific problem that the free market couldn’t; it was just a power grab by the leftists, amirite?

  24. Barry says:

    @Andy: “…that’s a goal that neither party has shown any interest in it.”

    Bull. The GOP has blocked any and all reform for decades now.

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  25. James Pearce says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    What you’ve described is a function of Fed Gov’t contracting…not a Cabinets Secretary’s role.

    What I’m describing is Mike Coffman’s complaints about the VA. Even got stuck in the mod queue because I scrupulously linked to the source.

    You clearly have no idea what a Cabinet Secretary does nor the constraints that GSA contracting present to internal department leadership achieving their desired goals.

    Yeah, okay….

    You don’t have to be an expert in the GSA contracting process to know it doesn’t cost a billion dollars and take five years to build a hospital.

    @Blue Galangal:

    Because the free market has already done such a great job with providing healthcare to elderly, sick, disabled, and poor Americans.

    The free market is excellent at providing healthcare to elderly, sick, and disabled people with money. The poor….yeah, not so much.

  26. Andy says:

    @Barry:

    Bull. The GOP has blocked any and all reform for decades now.

    Which government reform legislation specifically? Why did the Democrats not pass reform when they controlled the Executive and Legislature? Why was the response to the ACA website debacle a shoulder shrug and active efforts to ignore the problem rather than reform that would make future efforts better?

  27. MarkedMan says:

    @Andy: Being a Dem doesn’t make you an intelligent or principled legislature. But being a modern Republican does mean that you are likely to be a vindictive and corrupt cynic with little legislative ability. This was not always true by any measure. In fact, in my lifetime there used to exist bi-partisan working groups that truly understood things like defense, healthcare, environment and so forth, and who reached the across the aisle not just to assure the passage of one piece of legislation but because these congress critters were committed to an issue and recognized that their minority/majority status was subject to change so it was important to have continuity when that happened.

    But Gingrich’s “50% + 1 vote” killed that, as well as Hastert’s Rule (or rather, how it ended up being enforced). And the poison that subsumed the Party since the Southern Strategy has bought us to the point where people that care about decency, about policy, people that think it is important to value reality and facts are not going to become Republicans, and the Republicans who joined before the rot advanced too far have died, or retired, or been primaried out of office. So no, the Democrats are not full of high minded reformers. They have a small bunch of outright lizards at the bottom, a huge middle that muddles along and more or less does what they are told, and a small percentage that can actually craft legislation and cares what’s in it. And with the Dems in power we can get incremental improvements. Most people hate incrementalism, but the reality is that’s how much of the world’s progress was made.

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  28. Just 'nutha... says:

    @James Pearce: I get stuck in the mod cue 100% of the time now. I just write it off as a cost of doing business here. Get over yourself.

  29. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @James Pearce:

    They can complain all they want, all Departments have to comply with Federal acquisition regulations. It’s the law. Those laws are outside of the scope of a cabinet secretary’s powers–which is what these posts are about. Everyone in the Fed Government hates acquisition laws…except for Congress. Contracting regulations are no different than the tax code…inefficiency is built in to reward preferred groups and to maintain leverage Congress critters can solicit donations around.

    Congressmen and women want 5 billion dollar hospitals in their district built with $20 hammers and stocked with $500 toilets.