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Explore our coverage of government and politics.

Craven: Summer Internship

If I learned one thing covering Congress this summer, it’s that political action these days is mostly the result of crisis situations.

Legislation that promoted U.S. social progress was once common, but bipartisan support now only occurs in rare instances, usually in the wake of scandal or prolonged public outrage. The power of an idea seems to no longer unite Congress; only the energy of national disapproval and shame.

In May, major deficiencies were revealed at the Department of Veterans Affairs. They included poor oversight and unacceptably long wait times for military veterans seeking care.

As front-page headlines alleged the mistreatment of our veterans and VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned, all eyes turned toward Congress, where Senate Veterans Affairs chairman, Bernie Sanders, promised a fix.

The VA problems were not entirely surprising to Sanders, who sponsored 21 veterans’ bills before the scandal broke, but only the Veterans' Compensation Cost-of-Living Adjustment Act has been ratified as law.

Only when the scandal became public, did Sanders’ VA reform efforts suddenly seem more possible. Congressional members of all stripes, some of whom had voted against earlier reforms, took to the airwaves to declare what they said was their long-held support for veterans. Promises to increase oversight and boost care at the VA were made from all corners of the Capitol.

When Sanders teamed up with Republican Senator John McCain to forge a comprehensive bill, it breezed through the Senate on a 93 to 3 vote. A companion bill out of the Republican-dominated House passed unanimously. Then politicians on both sides of the aisle declared they would act quickly and send the legislation to the White House.

But as media interest in VA reform evaporated, so did Capital Hill unity. The House/Senate conference period dragged on for six long weeks.

Heated discussion between legislators over how to pay for the bill took place behind closed doors. Publicly, Senator Sanders sparred with Representative Jeff Miller, his Republican House counterpart, until negotiations completely broke down in late July. They finally reached agreement just a few days before the August Congressional recess. Finally, on August 7th, President Obama signed the bill into law - making the emergency measure the only significant legislation passed out of Congress all summer.

Now, the American public is agitated over events in Ferguson, Missouri, where Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American was fatally shot by police. Both Republicans and Democrats are being pushed to take action. Many have called for demilitarizing police departments.

But Congress is out of session, and I worry that by the time legislators get back to work the important issues surrounding Ferguson will have been forgotten. Because in today’s Washington, when public pressure fades, so does the likelihood of Congressional action.

Jasper Craven is a senior at Boston University where he is working for a dual degree journalism and political science. Special appointments include city editor, BU Daily Free Press (2013); six-month Boston Globe fellowship (2013); internship, U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee (2012); and bi-weekly columnist, Caledonian Record, St. Johnsbury (2006-10). During the summer of 2014 he worked as Washington correspondent for the Times-Argus and Rutland Herald.
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