Retiring Rep. Phil Roe, a powerhouse legislator on veteran issues, leaves a powerful legacy
By STEVE BEYNON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 13, 2020
WASHINGTON — The deep red Tennessee 1st Congressional District is known to send its representatives to Washington for a long time.
Rep. Phil Roe, a powerhouse figure in policy impacting veteran’s health care and education, is only the eighth member from the district since World War II, and the district hasn’t elected a Democrat since 1879.
Roe, 75, has been serving in Congress since 2009, a relatively short career compared to his predecessors. He announced his retirement in January, despite what would have been an easy re-election. “It's arithmetic,” he said in an interview with Stars and Stripes. “I'm just getting too old.”
“I missed my family,” Roe said, who has three children and five grandchildren. He lives with his wife, Clarinda.
“I wanted to let off the gas a little bit. I've been at it a long time, and I will miss that,” Roe said. “All this stuff on TV ... you'd think everybody was some sort of ogre, but they're not. There are a lot of good people on both sides of the aisle in Congress, and I'll leave a lot of good friends.”
The early years
Roe took his seat in the House after defeating his opponent David Davis in the 2008 primary by 486 votes. Davis blamed his defeat on Roe’s ability to persuade Democrats to vote for him.
But Roe’s political career started years before Washington. In 2003, he was first elected as a commissioner in Johnson City, a relatively small city on the eastern border of Tennessee, about 100 miles from Knoxville. He served as vice mayor from 2003-2007 and then as mayor from 2007 to 2009.
After earning his medical degree from the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in 1972, he joined the Army’s medical corps and served with the 2nd Infantry Division in South Korea. On top of his time in the Army, Roe was immersed in military culture most of his life.
He grew up in a military town — Clarksville, Tenn. — and said all of his friends’ dads served in the armed forces.
“My scoutmaster was a first sergeant in the 101st Airborne Division. And unfortunately, he was killed in Vietnam, in 1965. And I had friends, quite a few classmates of mine, good friends of mine, that were killed in Vietnam. And we all knew at that time, that I'd be, we'd all be, most young men were going in the military. ... When was the real question.”
He left the service as a major in 1974 and went on to work as an OB/GYN in Johnson City for 31 years, delivering 5,000 babies. His residency was at the Memphis VA Medical Center in 1971, which spurred him to build a career out of veterans’ policy.
“I saw VA patients,” Roe said. “I saw veteran patients and I thought, ‘Well, gosh, most of the veteran issues are disability issues, medical issues, other things like that, that I have experience with.’ So it looked ... to be a perfect fit for me, so that's why I picked that committee.”
Legacy in House VA committee
During his entire time in Congress, Roe served on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which dictates policy impacting benefits, health care and education for veterans. It also oversees the Department of Veterans Affairs, second only to the Defense Department in size and budget. The VA is the largest health-care network in the United States, providing care to over 9 million veterans.
With a dual background in medicine and the military, Roe made veterans’ policy the cornerstone of his time on Capitol Hill. His fingerprints are on some of the most impactful measures for current and former service members over the past decade. Many consider him to be one of the effective legislators on veterans’ policy in years.
“He is a great man; we had an excellent relationship with him and his staff,” said Tom Porter, executive vice president of government affairs for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “We’re sad to see him go, he really cares about veterans and did a great job. He and his staff routinely came to us with ideas.”
Roe’s resume on veteran issues is extensive. He said he is especially proud of expanding community care opportunities and strengthening the GI Bill, one of the most powerful benefits for a servicemember and his or her family.
In a statement issued shortly after Roe announced his retirement, Veterans of Foreign Wars said, “Without him, the Mission Act, Forever GI Bill and other significant legislation may not have been achieved for our nation’s heroes.”
Roe penned one of the biggest reforms of education benefits for veterans in decades through the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Education Assistance Act, often referred to as the “Forever GI Bill.” It combined 18 separate bills and terminated the 15-year limit for veterans to use education benefits. It also created more incentives for veterans to pursue a degree in science, engineering or math. The measure also expanded benefits to recipients of the Purple Heart.
From 2017-2019, Roe served as the VA committee’s chairman and is the ranking member since Democrats took back control of the House last year. Roe led the committee and continues to lead his party through one of the most pivotal times for health care, as veterans are increasingly encouraged to seek care in the private sector.
“The Mission Act ... was I think our crowning achievement, and we're still rolling that out,” Roe said. “I think the Mission Act takes the best of the VA and the best of the private sector and tries to marry those two.”
The Mission Act is among the most consequential reworkings of veteran care in decades. Under the measure, veterans can seek mental health services, urgent care and primary care outside the federal system. The landmark effort was spurred by controversies surrounding excessive wait times for care at VA facilities and long distances that some veterans had to travel to federal hospitals, especially patients from rural areas.
“He was fantastic, he was a great chair. I think his medical background as a doctor was really important,” said Joe Chenelly, executive director of AMVETS, a national veterans organization. “He was probably an underappreciated leader who led the veteran community through a difficult time trying to get community care going.”
The Mission Act was passed in 2018 with a 92-5 vote in the Senate and a 347-70 vote in the House.
Taking care of an aging and expanding population of veterans is expensive. Yet excessive wait times and inaccessible care for rural veterans was unacceptable for the public and Washington after the explosive 2014 Phoenix VA scandal. Long wait times led to the death of more than 200 veterans, according to the federal watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office.
In a 2014 hearing on the scandal, Roe said of the VA, “The culture, I don’t understand it, [patients] drop through the cracks. ... I’m embarrassed by this.”
Roe said in his interview with Stars and Stripes that the “lightbulb went off” when he visited Oregon’s second congressional district, represented by Republican Greg Walden. His rural district is the largest in the country and 20,000 square miles larger than Roe’s home state of Tennessee. Someone living on the west side of Oregon may have to travel hundreds of miles if they need care at the VA hospital in Portland, on the other side of the state.
“There are veterans that may have to travel five or six hours, to come down and find out their doctor's not there that day, and turn around and go home," he said. "And I thought, 'That's wrong. ... I've got to write a bill, that's good for urban America, and for rural America.'"
The Mission Act built upon the Veterans Choice Act, which passed in 2014. President Donald Trump routinely touts the Mission Act as a signature achievement of his presidency.
Yet there have been concerns that privatization of VA care could lead to federal hospital closures or funding stripped in favor of private-sector care.
Many advocates believe that privatization is an issue to explore, yet without private-sector care supplementing the VA, rural veterans would be without easy access.
In an interview with Stars and Stripes in September, then-former Vice President Joe Biden said he would never support “total privatization,” but said community care is part of the puzzle, especially in rural areas.
Roe dismissed concerns about privatization as “utter hogwash.”
“The present ask in this fiscal year is north of $240 billion,” he said. “We're doing a damn poor job of privatizing if that's what we're doing.”
The VA is one of the only federal agencies not getting a budget cut and is the only Cabinet department eyeing a double-digit budget boost — 14%, according to Trump’s proposed budget. VA is set for a $250 billion budget next year, Congress gave the department about $10 billion more than the administration requested. The ballooning budget follows a trend of the agency rapidly expanding in size to support an aging veterans population. In 2001, the budget was $48 billion.
VA’s budget growth comes as it tries to modernize its record-keeping system, expand mental health services, kick off rural health initiatives and offer more gender-specific services for women.
The runaway budget is an issue on Capitol Hill, but taking away from VA could be political suicide and blocking new initiatives could be equally dangerous. Most veteran initiatives pass Congress with few skirmishes.
“Spending more money isn't necessarily getting better care,” Roe said.
Biden’s VA secretary pick
It is unclear who is in line to be Biden’s secretary of veterans’ affairs. Yet he is expected to make a relatively safe pick for easy confirmation, especially if Republicans control the Senate.
A number of veteran advocates have suggested the best route to go is to bring in an Obama-era bureaucrat who knows the agency, and others have signaled they will push for a woman to be in charge as the VA looks to make its hospitals more accommodating to women.
Roe says Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie has done a great job, especially building up private sector care, and that there is plenty of work to be done on that. Roe urged Biden to pick his next VA secretary carefully.
“I would absolutely pass along to President-elect Biden, to make sure you absolutely select a great leadership team. If you watch most organizations ... the biggest failure is a failure at the top. When you start at the top with a great leader, that environment, that culture is what you want to create. And if you can do that, then you're going to have a successful organization.”
Roe is not sure who the next top Republican on the House Veterans’ Affairs committee will be once he leaves but believes the roster to fill the seat is strong.
"A lot of young members got put on the Democratic side, I admit that," Roe said. "But we, on the Republican side, we really have a strong bench."
"We've got strong people. Jim Banks, a veteran, as you know. Mike Bost, a veteran, have been on there for a long time," he added. "I feel really good about our team. And I don't know who the ranking member is going to be. But it will be good, it will be solid.’’
Roe isn’t sure how he’s going to spend retirement, but he is going to stay in the veteran’s space by serving on the board of the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, an organization dedicated to the needs of military families and caregivers.
He’s also going to do work for the U.S. Israel Education Association, a pro-Israel advocacy group.
Roe doesn’t expect work for those two organizations to monopolize his time as much as Congress did. Roe lives near a part of the Appalachian Trail and hikes with friends most weekends and plans to play a lot of golf.
“You still get asked to go do a lot of things. I've been visiting schools and other organizations,” Roe said. “Around here, we're still staying pretty busy. The virus has picked up, but businesses for the most part, except for restaurants, are really pretty much back working.”