On Monday, sixth-place Democratic presidential contender Beto O'Rourke unveiled a big new plan to pay for the health care of U.S. military veterans, while attempting to transform the Veterans Affairs medical system from bureaucratic morass to health care trailblazer.
The plan's two key elements will surprise no one paying attention to the Democratic presidential race: end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and tax the rich (in this case, defined as those earning more than $200,000 a year in adjusted gross income). The twist: The proposed "war tax" would "be levied on households without current members of the Armed Forces or veterans of the Armed Forces."
"This new tax would serve as a reminder of the incredible sacrifice made by those who serve and their families," reads the campaign's write-up (which, incidentally, refers to O'Rourke as "Beto" throughout). "Over the next few decades, the costs related to health care and disability compensation for the 'forever wars' in Iraq and Afghanistan alone are projected to be nearly a trillion dollars. Today, these services—ones which we have promised to veterans and ones which they are owed—are subject to fiscal battles in Washington. They should not be."
The war tax would apply only to future conflicts, and only to those explicitly authorized by Congress. (O'Rourke has been a consistent critic, through Democratic and Republican administrations, of unconstitutional executive branch war-making.) As for the current needs of vets, "Beto would propose that Congress invest $1 out of every $2 dollars saved [by ending the wars in Afghanistan in Iraq]—estimated at nearly $200 billion to vets, and at least $400 billion in total savings—in programs that benefit those who served."
The plan contains things to like, things to dislike, and things that make you go hmmm. On the positive side, baked right into it is a righteous critique of Forever War. "Eighteen years into the war in Afghanistan, and nearly three decades after our first engagement in Iraq, the time has come to cancel the blank check for endless war and to ensure that any future engagements are the result of a national conversation about our security interests and duly authorized by Congress."
This is familiar territory for the toothsome Texan. As I wrote in December:
O'Rourke was a member of the House Armed Services Committee, is a withering critic of both the Iraq and Libya interventions ("two incredibly ill-conceived regime change wars?"), opposed bombing Syria, and has consistently called on Congress to end the open-ended post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force ("blank check for endless war") and reassert its war-declaration powers. "Troubling, unconstitutional, to be at war in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen & Somalia, in addition to Afghanistan, w/out informed authorization," he tweeted in 2017. "Why do we have such a hard time admitting the West's role and culpability in the problems in the Middle East?" he wrote in 2016.
I also appreciate the gesture, increasingly rare in the Democratic conversation, of having some big new spending proposal paid for. "We're running $1 trillion annual deficits and we cannot continue to spend ourselves into ruin," O'Rourke said in 2012, and he's right. Though I wish the 2019 version shared his predecessor's willingness to, you know, actually cut spending.
Less promising to my admittedly cynical ears is O'Rourke's vision of "moderniz[ing] the VA by increasing transparency and accountability" and "addressing staffing shortages," while "positioning the VA to drive an industry-wide digital health care revolution." It's not clear to me that the widespread problems with the centrally planned government health care system can be fixed by better central planning, and O'Rourke's faith in government-spurred "standardization of electronic health care data" may well be misplaced.
There's some granular and sensible-sounding stuff in there about allowing V.A. doctors to prescribe medical cannabis, and O'Rourke is right to sound the alarm about veterans' suicide rates. But the plan includes some microscopic level of detail—"reverse boot camps" for returning veterans! "Instruct VA to publicize their efforts to combat sexual harassment at their facilities and metrics for success to ensure accountability"!—that will get lost in chatter about war-taxing the non-military rich.
Though as the Houston Chronicle points out, these are the weeds O'Rourke knows best. "The plan for veterans recalls some of his biggest legislative victories while serving in Congress from 2012 to 2018," Texas's largest newspaper wrote. "Possibly his hallmark legislative accomplishment was a bill expanding mental health care for military veterans even if they received a less-than-honorable discharge, an idea that was an outgrowth of El Paso having one of the highest suicide rates for veterans in the nation."
Heading into this week's presidential debates, O'Rourke is polling at around 3.5 percent nationwide, down from an average of 8.3 percent in March. In the critical early state of Iowa, where he has staked his visit-every-county style of campaigning on, the former congressman is also polling at around 3.5 percent.