VA Nominee Steps Before Senate Committee

Robert McDonald, President Obama's nominee to run the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, is appearing before the Senate for his confirmation hearing. He faces the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, which will vote on whether to send his nomination to the Senate floor.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Robert McDonald is President Obama's choice to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs out of scandal and mismanagement and today McDonald is in front of the Senate for his confirmation hearing. He is a former CEO of Procter & Gamble, he has spent most of his career with the company that sells products like laundry detergent and diapers. And to learn what this nominee could bring to the VA, we are joined now by NPR congressional reporter Ailsa Chang. Hi.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Hi.

SIEGEL: How unusual was the President's choice when he tapped McDonald to be the next VA secretary?

CHANG: It was pretty unusual. I mean, typically the kind of people nominated for this position are retired generals. Know McDonald does have some ties to the military. He graduated near the top of his class at West Point and then served five years in the Army, where he rose to the rank of Captain. But the White House's decision to nominate McDonald signals a very different direction. It means the administration thinks that what the VA needs right now is a really great manager, someone who can quickly resuscitate an agency that's been mired in inertia, mismanagement and lack of accountability.

SIEGEL: And what about a career at Proctor & Gamble would lead the White House to think that McDonald would lead an agency like the VA?

CHANG: Well, first of all its size. Procter & Gamble has about a 120,000 employees. It owns some 300 brands worldwide. It's a complex sprawling operation just like the VA, which has about 300,000 employees. And there's this thinking that someone trained to listen to what customers want might actually help deliver more responsive better services to veterans. But here are the differences, unlike in a business where executive decisions can come down more swiftly, McDonald would have to work in a large cumbersome federal bureaucracy, that often gets stonewalled by Congress. If he needs more money to do something he'll have to show for Congressional hearing and get both chambers to pass it. And that's no easy task, I mean look at what's happening right now, both houses have agreed the VA is in crisis and needs immediate legislation to help revamp the system but that bill's been stymied for more than a month and a half now.

SIEGEL: Well McDonald testified today. What kinds of ideas did he propose to help reform the VA system?

CHANG: Well, first he talked about how the VA is this loosely connected system of individual administrations and that he plans to reintegrate that system so that every employee is measured against what he calls, a central strategic plan, just like a Proctor & Gamble. He'll more actively recruit doctors right out of medical school, so they can start their careers at the VA and remain there for years. Just as many people, including himself, started their careers at Procter & Gamble and, you know, while they were young and worked their way up from the bottom. And finally McDonald says accountability will be key for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RONALD MCDONALD: It's unconscionable to me that you have an organization where one of the stated values, one of the stated values - the first stated value's integrity. Yet you have people lying and you have people tolerating it. The West Point honor code says, I don't - we don't lie, cheat, steal, but we don't tolerate people who do. You don't want people in your community lying.

CHANG: Basically the key message McDonald telegraphed today, is that he's going to be around everywhere. Every senator will have his cell phone number. But whether he will get the adequate funds to make transformations possible, will still be up to Congress. That said, he's expected to be confirmed easily and they're expecting a floor vote on him next week before the August break.

SIEGEL: OK, Thanks Ailsa.

CHANG: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: At NPR's was Ailsa Chang at the Capitol.

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