Scandal and ineptitude at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are nothing new. In fact, the federal bureaucracy of the VA was birthed amid a massive backlog of claims from post-WWI veterans and corruption on an enormous scale during the scandal-plagued administration of President Warren G. Harding. Unfortunately, our national leaders failed to learn from the failures that were evident at the genesis of the behemoth government program that portends to care for the needs of our nation’s veterans. Instead, it has grown and become even more unwieldy over the last hundred years.
In 1921 Congress passed the Sweet Act, creating the Veterans’ Bureau, which consolidated several veterans programs into one federal agency. The number of backlogged claims from WWI veterans at the time was massive. An editorial in the American Legion Weekly presciently warned at the time that “The difficulty of inducing Congress to enact the Sweet Bill should clear any illusions from the minds of ex-servicemen. Congress is going to give veterans of the World War only such considerations as it finds inescapable.”
The American Legion Weekly reported that when the Sweet Act passed,
There were 248,411 veterans alleging disability with claims for disability rejected. There were, according to experts, between fifty and seventy-five thousand veterans suffering from tuberculosis and mental diseases receiving no hospital treatment, care, or rehabilitation. There were 41,339 disabled veterans declared eligible for vocational training and not taking it, 16,071 with claims for training pending, 15,776 with claims for training rejected. A grand total of 471,597 claims against the Government, a goodly portion of them at least just, deserving and needy ones, without action or results.
President Harding tasked Charles R. Forbes, a longtime friend and poker buddy, with running the new federal bureaucracy, giving him control of a $500 million budget the first year. A veteran himself, Forbes had previously served on the Bureau of War Risk Insurance.
Though he promised to “right many of the wrongs that have been done disabled veterans” and vowed there would be “speedy adjudication of claims,” Forbes instead used the position for his own personal financial gain and to benefit his cronies, leaving most of the veterans’ claims rejected or unaddressed, despite 30,000 new hires at the Veterans’ Bureau (many of them his friends and associates). Forbes also required bribes and kickbacks in return for contracts to build VA hospitals, many of the deals secured during “joy rides” with his contractor friends to inspect new hospital sites. During their nights of partying, drinking, and gambling, Forbes cut deals (sometimes spelled out in secret codes) with contractors who were willing to pay up. In one instance, Forbes demanded that contractor E.H. Mortimer pay him $5000 in return for a contract to build a $17 million hospital. Forbes was having an affair with Mortimer’s wife at the time.