Policy, Politics, Religion and Death: Could There Be Any Controversy Here?
There are probably a number of ways to make policy decisions for a
federal agency and different situations require different methods.
When an agency makes a decision that can impact large numbers of
people, it obviously needs to carefully consider the impact. If an
agency makes a decision that is likely to impact its constituents, does
not explain the decision or rationale, and then initially refuses to
release the document that implements the decision, it can probably expect a strong public reaction.
That appears to be how a recent decision was made by the Department
of Veterans Affairs regarding a new policy surrounding the ceremony
involving the American flag for burial ceremonies in national
cemeteries. (See "Not Meant for Public Discussion")
When a change in the policy of a federal agency is going to invoke
the emotions surrounding the death of a veteran while American troops
are fighting another war, a national symbol with the patriotic
symbolism of the American flag, and the role of religion during a
funeral ceremony, it would be hard to think of a policy that can have
much more emotional impact.
No doubt, the officials at the National Cemetery Administration
are smart, hard-working, successful people. They make a decent salary,
have good benefits and can probably look forward to a good retirement.
It is also likely that very few Americans have as much knowledge about
veteran burials than those that are working in this organization.
What is a mystery is how the intelligent, caring people in a federal
agency could be so tone deaf when making a new policy decision that is
going to fly in the face of tradition and involve very emotional issues
for a large number of Americans.
As noted in the article earlier this week, "If the controversy
starts getting traction on national news programs, we will probably see
the emergence of one or more senior VA officials as the heat builds up.
But, if it remains an isolated controversy hidden from the majority of
our citizens, it will go away quietly and the stealth approach to
changing government policy will again be effective. Perhaps we are
getting the kind of government we deserve."
The story got traction and started speeding up by the hour. The new
VA policy made national news shows and was the topic of discussion on
the internet. The House of Representatives got involved after hearing
from angry constituents and introduced a resolution condemning the new
policy and dozens of Congressmen reportedly contact the VA about the
Predictably, after the political heat increased, a senior official
emerged from within the agency to "clarify" the original policy. From a
press release on the VA website: ""Honoring
the burial wishes of veterans is one of the highest commitments for the
men and women of VA," said William F. Tuerk, VA's Under Secretary for
Memorial Affairs. "A family may request the recitation of words to
accompany the meaningful presentation of the American flag as we honor
the dedication and sacrifice of their loved ones."
Obviously, the smart folks in the
Cemetery Administration started to focus on the new policy and its
implications and issued a statement that will probably curtail the
howls of indignation from around the United States all directed at the
VA's Vermont Avenue Headquarters in Washington.
It would have been quicker, easier and
smarter to "clarify" the policy when it was first issued instead of
hiding behind the argument that a new policy document was internal to
the agency and "not intended for public distribution." Instead of
portraying a workforce that is sensitive to the issues that surround
the death and burial of an American veteran who has served his country,
the agency created an image that the senior officials are a cadre of
arrogant policymakers with primary concerns of politics, career
advancement and being politically correct.
Sometimes policy decisions are made and
the public's reaction is a surprise. The reaction in this case could
not have been a surprise. The only surprise is that the officials
responsible apparently did not have the foresight to see the publicity
deluge headed their way.