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Rep. Jeff Miller-R-Fla., at a hearing in December, 2015.

Rep. Jeff Miller-R-Fla., at a hearing in December, 2015. (Joe Gromelski/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — There have been few venues as daunting for Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald as the Cannon Building’s Room 334.

That’s where McDonald is grilled regularly by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., his chief inquisitor.

Miller, the committee chairman, has pressed McDonald for nearly two years on the speed of VA reforms, occasionally wielding subpoenas to force the department to release information, much to the secretary’s consternation.

But the tense exchanges between the two men will end after this year.

Miller, who has served 15 years in Congress, announced Thursday that he will not seek re-election. Had he run, he still would have had to step down as chairman in January due to Republican term-limit rules.

Whomever becomes the next chairman will inherit a spotlight that has been unique in the VA committee’s history, though Miller made it clear he doesn’t intend to back off in the last 10 months of his tenure.

“There is still more to accomplish before I depart,” he said in a statement. “I intend to complete my tenure as House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs chairman while maintaining the same robust oversight of VA that has defined my chairmanship.”

One of the most outspoken critics of the VA since taking the helm of the committee in 2011, Miller has gained a reputation as the most aggressive lawmaker on veterans’ issues.

Some people have praised the congressman, while others have chafed at his blunt style and his criticism of protections for government employees. Yet, he’s gained bipartisan respect, and even the person most often at the receiving end of his questioning had kind words for him after his retirement announcement.

“Over the past two years, working together, I feel we have made a positive difference in the lives of millions of veterans,” McDonald said in a statement. “I’m proud to be his partner in this effort and to call him a friend.”

Miller, a 56-year-old staunch conservative from the Florida Panhandle, has gained prominence guiding congressional response to a national scandal in veterans’ care that began in April 2014 with revelations of toxic leadership, veterans dying while languishing on secret patient wait lists and reprisals against whistleblowers.

He has repeatedly hauled VA executives accused of wrongdoing in front of his committee -- and the increasing number of TV cameras that have popped up in House VA hearings -- to answer publicly for their actions. The congressman was also one of the main negotiators, along with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for the $16 billion VA reform bill passed in 2014.

Miller also has made it his mission to make it easier to fire senior executives, and he is loathed by some union leaders for his perceived anti-labor bent and efforts to weaken employee protections. J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, called him a “fool” in a February speech.

However, colleagues in Congress from both sides of the aisle praised his work for veterans.

“Jeff Miller has been a dedicated, determined advocate for veterans,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. “He has provided leadership and vision in seeking to assure better accountability, health care, jobs and other programs veterans need and deserve.”

Some veterans’ groups gave Miller high marks, too.

“Chairman Miller embodies the term, ‘public servant,’ and his leadership and tireless work on behalf of our nation’s 23 million veterans will be missed,” Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America stated in a news release.

druzin.heath@stripes.com Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes


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