Filling the Department of Veterans Affairs vacancy to oversee the agency's benefits system is being slowed by a Republican senator, part of an effort to force the department to answer questions about an ethics investigation into a former employee.
In a statement published in Tuesday's edition of the Congressional Record, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said he was placing a hold on Joshua Jacobs' nomination to be the VA's under secretary for benefits. Grassley said the hold was due to “inadequate” responses from the department to letters he's sent about allegations that a VA employee who resigned last year violated ethics rules.
"Because of VA's lack of transparency on these critical issues and Mr. Jacobs' evasive answers on a number of my questions, I must therefore object to any consideration of this nominee," Grassley wrote in his statement. "I am more than willing to discuss with the VA and Mr. Jacobs how they can remedy the deficiencies in their responses."
A hold does not prevent a nominee from being confirmed, but means the confirmation could take considerably longer since the Senate would have to find time for floor votes.
Grassley's office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday on what the VA would need to do for him to lift his hold.
The under secretary for benefits is in charge of running the Veterans Benefits Administration, or VBA, which manages about $135 billion worth of disability compensation and other non-medical benefits for 350,000 veterans or their survivors.
Jacobs, who is currently serving as the acting under secretary for benefits, represents the Biden administration's second attempt to fill the job on a permanent basis. The administration's first nominee withdrew from consideration amid GOP concerns about alleged contract impropriety during his time at the Labor Department, despite an inspector general report clearing him.
By contrast, Jacobs breezed through his confirmation hearing last month and was advanced by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in a unanimous vote last week.
Jacobs is a longtime VA employee who also previously worked as deputy staff director for the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Grassley's objection to quickly moving on Jacobs' confirmation centers around letters the senator sent to the department about the former executive director of VBA's Education Service, Charmain Bogue. Last year, an inspector general investigation, done at Grassley's request, found that Bogue worked on issues involving an advocacy group that her husband worked for as a consultant without consideration for whether she should recuse herself over a potential conflict of interest.
Grassley said he has a number of outstanding questions for the VA about the case, including whether a whistleblower was retaliated against. He also sent written questions to Jacobs about the case.
"To date, VA has failed to provide a full and complete response to any of the five oversight letters I have sent to them since April 2021," Grassley said in his statement in the Congressional Record. "Because of my concerns with VA's obstruction and because the nomination relates to a position at the center of my oversight requests, I submitted questions for the record to Mr. Jacobs. Although I appreciate his response to my questions, I found a number of his answers unsatisfactory."
Asked for comment on Grassley's assertions, the VA referred Military.com to the White House.
The White House in an email noted Jacob received unanimous approval by the Veterans Affairs Committee and said "we look forward to the next steps in the confirmation process."
Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Wednesday morning he had not been informed of Grassley's hold, but that he would talk to the senator about any concerns he has.
VA officials "need to answer him if it's a real issue, which I assume it is because I trust Chuck," Tester said.
At the same time, Tester said, it's important for Jacobs to be confirmed as quickly as possible.
"This guy's really important to get in," Tester said. "Really important, and he's unbelievably qualified. Really good guy. And I don't say that about everyone."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.