Washington -- WHEN YOU zap a sacred cow, you have to brace yourself for the ensuing mooing.
The cow most sacred here is the veterans' lobby. Recently, I wrote the unwritable: "the most wasteful special-interest spending in Washington" was the $37 billion to provide mediocre government medicine to veterans.
The night before the column appeared, I ran into Rep. Gerry Solomon, the laudably tight-fisted new chairman of the House Rules Committee. When I told him the worst big-government mistake of Ronald Reagan's was to elevate the Veterans Administration to cabinet level, Mr. Solomon replied cheerily that he wrote that bill and sold the president on it.
Obviously the vets' lobby is not going to get money-saving heat from the Gingrich crowd.
Although the New York Times grimly runs my most iconoclastic harangues regularly, not all newspapers do. The International Herald Tribune, which usually runs my column, took a pass on this.
An earlier clue that conservative anti-spending fervor would stop at the vet lobby's edge came when I researched the piece: the Heritage Foundation, fount of opinion on every right-wing cost-cutting plan known to budgeteers, has zero in its files on potential savings on veterans' spending.
Heritage nervously handed me off to Ed Derwinski, the DVA secretary fired by George Bush for daring to cross the American Legion and other lobbyists on making use of empty hospital beds.
He was a quotable source, but the best analysis was the April 27, 1994, expansion of a Wall Street Journal piece by the Cato Institute, gutsiest of the cost-cutters. (1000 Massachusetts Ave., Washington D.C. 20001, $4.)
The Legion reacted to my modest proposal by attacking a straw man: "Don't Begrudge Veterans Medical Care" was the demagogic headline over its letter to the Times. But the new idea is to privatize the present system of socialized medicine, giving disabled veterans vouchers to buy insurance for private medical care that treats them with dignity. (What I do begrudge is changing the historic name of Maryland's Cabin John Bridge ** to "the American Legion Bridge.")
Then Mike McCurry, the president's new press secretary, called to introduce himself and say a letter was coming from chief of staff Leon Panetta. That Clintonite seized this as a heaven-sent opportunity to pull out all the heartstops, from a treacly "the country has a sacred trust," which nobody denies, to a fear-mongering characterization of vouchers for improved private care as "the destruction of this system of support for our veterans."
Mr. Panetta is shocked, shocked at my suggestion that the current secretary "is somehow the wrong person to be heading this department."
Jesse Brown, the former head of the Disabled American Veterans and a combat hero, is a lifelong veterans' lobbyist; he proudly asserts his part in the cabal that ousted the cost-conscious Mr. Derwinski.
Any veterans' lobbyist is the wrong choice to direct the VA, in the same way a general would be wrong to head the Defense Department: The advocate for the special interest is never the defender of the taxpayer.
Proof: Mr. Brown writes in horror how I would "force disabled veterans to deal with insurance companies." Also, he derides as "out of touch with reality" any suggestion of dealing with "competitive and profit-based private interests." That's a professional entitlist revealing an anti-market mind-set that even Hillary Clinton has been forced to abandon.
Then an aide to Bob Stump, new chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, called to get the dates and branch of my service.
I said if the committee was launching an investigation, her boss would have to call and try to intimidate me himself.
Amid the mooing of the sacred cow come a few voices of veterans fed up with the lobby's demand for special treatment. But I cannot quote them because they fear retaliation.
William Safire is a New York Times columnist.