Critics derided as “small stuff” President Obama’s announcement in his State of the Union address that he would focus less time on Congress (given its current ineffectiveness) and more time on his executive power, wielding the “power of the pen and the phone.”
Detractors would be wise not to discount the impact of executive action. Example A popped up just this week.
When Marine Cpl. Thomas Dickson returned from a field operation deployment, he learned that his university had failed to honor his leave of absence, despite assurances to the contrary, and had charged him tuition during his deployment. It then refused to allow him to withdraw at all. The school is still after him for $34,000. At the time, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs wasn’t equipped to handle complaints and, as Dickson wrote to the University of San Diego Veterans Legal Clinic, “I checked every year to find a service like this and only recently found [you].”
But this week, Dickson entered his information into the Department of Veterans Affairs’ brand new, 21st century online complaint and response system for veterans who have been mistreated or deceived by colleges, which triggers VA assistance and even audits of schools that generate many veteran complaints. He received an immediate response and offer of help. This is the VA at its best. (The Defense Department unveiled a similar complaint and response system – for students using active duty tuition assistance.)
At the same time, the VA also introduced a thoroughly modern, online college comparison tool to enable veterans to figure out where they might use their GI Bill, including simple graphics to convey key indicators of student success at each school – such as the percent of students graduating, their median debt load and the percent of students defaulting on federal loans – and how those numbers compare nationally. The tool even gives veterans – for the first time ever – quick estimates of how much they would receive, based on their military service, in GI Bill benefits towards housing, tuition and books.
Veterans using the GI Bill suddenly have a 21st century VA. Prior to this, veterans had to visit 17 different sites at different federal agencies to try to get a sense of their GI Bill benefits and their college options. The site isn’t perfect. It fails to give students each school’s tuition, and, therefore, how much they would have to pay out of pocket after GI Bill benefits – a critical factor in college choice; and it also fails to alert veterans to some of the sleazy schools out there whose graduates are literally ineligible for the careers they were promised or which are under investigation by federal and state law enforcement for deceiving veterans. But it represents dramatic improvement.
The VA also – in an unusual act of transparency – created a searchable database with all of its raw data about GI Bill use. This extremely instructive data shows, for example, that the school enrolling the most GI Bill recipients has a student loan default rate twice the national average; that four of the 10 schools enrolling the most GI Bill recipients have default rates that are higher than their graduation rates; and that the 10 schools enrolling the most GI Bill recipients have an average graduation rate of only 20 percent. (These are all for-profit colleges, which have a documented record of utilizing a business model called “churn,” in which they enroll students but fail to educate them, allowing them to drop out but keeping their Pell Grants and GI Bill dollars.)
In short, over a five day period, the Department of Veterans Affairs unveiled three back-to-back, dramatic improvements for veterans using the GI Bill. VA – often criticized for its backwater, outdated 19th century modes of processing paper claims – is now leading federal agency modernization into the 21st Century.
This didn’t happen because VA suddenly started to care more about student veterans, nor because it was bitten by a Silicon Valley technology bug, nor even because it wanted to leapfrog other federal agencies in modernizing consumer access. Bureaucracies don’t take on major overhauls, costing millions of dollars in staff time and resources, out of the goodness of their hearts or even because modernizing is a good idea.
Instead, these are just some of the changes required by Executive Order 13607 signed in April 2012. (Major changes at bureaucracies take time, and these new online systems took nearly two years to build.) Pushed by veterans service organizations and a growing cadre of news stories and government studies documenting aggressive and deceptive recruiting and profiteering of veterans by predatory for-profit colleges, President Obama explained his rationale for taking executive action:
Would the VA have done this on its own, without an executive order? Unlikely. There was reportedly a good bit of agency foot-dragging, which is only natural, because every federal agency already has its plate full just trying to keep up with demand, and they certainly aren’t eager to take on million-dollar modernization projects without added budgets.
But that’s why our system of government includes a commander in chief. And it’s why the president has the power to order federal agencies to act. Large bureaucracies might well be largely unresponsive to public need, if not for a publicly accountable, elected chief executive willing to identify public need and direct the agencies to handle it – even if the agencies find it burdensome.
The dramatic changes at VA this week are perfect evidence of the “power of the pen.” This is especially true because Congress did produce a related law, passed shortly after the president’s action – but it was watered down by profit-making private education companies with a financial interest in accessing the GI Bill. Rather than the new robust student complaint and response system required by the executive order, the law required only a student “feedback” system offering only posts that schools “verified,” with no requirement of VA response; and rather than the new, thoroughly modern online college comparison tool required by the executive order, the law required only that VA provide “information” about colleges.
Critics also contend that executive orders are less solid than laws passed by Congress, as they last only until a new president reverses them. That has certainly been true with the international “gag” order on family planning clinics mentioning abortion (also known as the “Mexico City policy”) – an executive order that, since 1984, has flipped on and off as Republicans come in or are swept out of the West Wing. But the repercussions of party control do not stop at the West Wing. Laws passed by Congress are also only as good as their officeholders’ majority.
Moreover, some executive action is unlikely to be undone. Would the next president – regardless of party – really order VA to go back to outdated paper pushing by taking down its modern, new GI Bill site, especially one that veterans organizations demanded? That seems unlikely. Modernization is not usually undone.
Hail to the Chief.
(Full disclosure: I worked on these issues in the Senate and joined with veterans advocates to establish a non-profit dedicated to protecting veterans from predatory recruiting.)