(CNN) -

The day before Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned in May, nearly 25 senators signed a letter calling for him to step down amid a widening scandal over delayed medical care for vets.

In the weeks before that, lawmaker after outraged lawmaker rose to denounce systemic problems at the sprawling agency that provides medical and other care to more than 8.5 million veterans. Reports of "cooked books," dying patients on waiting lists, and a warped management culture made headlines.

Spearheaded by CNN reporting, the latest news was certainly troubling and upped the stakes in Washington amid a midterm year.

It was high drama and members of Congress were in the thick of a political firestorm and some people were even pointing fingers at them. Facing voters in November, they needed to act, and fast.

Up went the rhetorical fever, down went Shinseki and in went reform-minded proposals to hire more doctors and nurses and build more medical facilities.

The estimated cost -- $35 billion over 10 years. Passage was uncommonly swift and bipartisan in both houses with promises to quickly negotiate a final version.

Oddly functional

A Congress infamous for its legislative dysfunction was oddly functional.

"It's very clear the status quo is not acceptable and it's time for real change," House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller said at a recent hearing.

While the step was dramatic, serious shortcomings at the VA were nothing new to Washington, including Congress.

Complaints of delayed care were well known for years, although not all of the alarming issues raised in the most recent controversy were apparent over that time.

Still, investigations were launched, reports written, and hearings held. Congress took some action, but what came about did not fully address historic health care deficiencies at the agency. This all now raises fresh questions about congressional responsibilities for holding agencies accountable.

The role of Congress

Difficulties accessing care "is something that goes way back as long as I can remember," said Rick Weidman, executive director of policy and government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America.

Congress attempted to address a host of issues plaguing the VA in the 1990s. Those reforms improved some functions and the delivery of medical care. But more difficulty in assessing care was an unfortunate consequence of those steps.

The VA scrambled to meet a requirement that no veteran wait longer than 30 days for care.

The mandate was already demanding for a beleaguered VA, but Congress also required that more veterans and more benefits be covered.

Subsequent GAO reports found that the agency was not able to improve health care wait times and the situation actually became worse.

Lawmakers also were generous in allocating services for veterans and even gave the VA every dime it asked for. But that didn't seem to help either. Wait times continued to rise.

Peter Shuck, Yale Law School professor and author of "Why Government Fails so Often and How It Can Do Better," said Congress could have been more effective.

"(Congress) has failed to exercise effective oversight to require the agency to handle its caseload more efficiently,"

Michael O'Hanlon with the Brookings Institution also said lawmakers could have pushed the agency to modernize its records more quickly and instituted more robust staff reviews.

Difficult to oversee

But Miller, who has chaired the veterans committee since 2011 and pressed for the most recent legislation, said the VA has lied "over and over again," making it difficult to oversee.

Weidman said the VA has not been forthcoming with the Veterans Affairs Committee over the years, which complains it is still being stonewalled on its requests for information.