The Senate on Monday overwhelmingly approved Robert Wilkie as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, by an 86 to 9 vote.
Wilkie was acting secretary when President Donald Trump nominated him to the post May 18. He left the position a short time after being nominated. Senate Republicans praised him for his leadership skills and strong background, addressing veterans issues in the final hours before the vote.
Wilkie was successful in a previous confirmation vote after he was nominated, in November 2017, as undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. He also worked on defense policy and cabinet affairs in the presidential transition office. Wilkie was a senior adviser to Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) prior to joining the Trump administration.
“Robert Wilkie is going to do an extraordinary job because he understands what it’s like to be the son of a veteran, to be a member of the armed services himself —he serves in the Air Force to this day,” Tillis said before the vote. “He also has great relationships with people across the political spectrum. He’s worked closely with committee staff.”
The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee advanced Wilkie’s nomination with strong bipartisan support during a voice vote July 10. Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Ranking Member Jon Tester (D-S.D.) released a joint statement beforehand stating describing Wilkie as a strong leader who can fix the numerous major problems facing the VA.
The VA is still recovering from a nationwide scandal that hit the headlines in 2012, when it was discovered that veterans were being forced to wait many months to obtain treatment, and government employees had even falsified records to make it appear the appointments were being made sooner.
In the months thereafter, it was also learned that hundreds of veterans died because they were unable to get needed treatment in a timely manner. Media reports exposed hundreds of millions of dollars in waste, fraud and abuse, widespread personnel corruption in which senior executives awarded each other huge bonuses and choice assignments, and widespread inadequate and even dangerous sanitary conditions in VA medical facilities.
With more than 370,000 employees, the VA is the largest nonmilitary department of the federal government. Congressional Republicans have tried repeatedly to reform VA’s personnel rules to make it easier to fire incompetent or dishonest employees but have met with limited success. Most of VA’s workers are represented by the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest federal employee union.
Trump signed an executive order creating a VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection in April 2017. The department later abolished some conflict of interest rules dating back to the 1960s, which prohibited employees from owning any stock, performing any service or doing any work at for-profit colleges. Trump also signed legislation to strengthen health care services at the department and streamline its community care programs.
Wilkie previously served as an assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs and special assistant to the president on the National Security Council under former President George W. Bush. He also worked in a senior position at one of the world’s largest engineering and program management firms, CH2M Hill.
Wilkie serves in the United States Air Force Reserve and was previously in the United States Navy Reserve. He is a graduate of the College of Naval Command and Staff, the Joint Forces Staff College, the Air Command and Staff College and the United States Army War College along with Wake Forest University, Loyola University College of Law, and Georgetown University Law Center.