By Sandra Basu
WASHINGTON—A bill that would provide the VA Secretary with enhanced authority to remove, demote, or suspend any VA employee, including senior executive service employees, for performance or misconduct is making its way through Congress.
Introduced by House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs chairman, Rep. Phil Roe, MD, (R-TN), the VA Accountability First Act of 2017 passed the House with the support of 227 Republicans and 10 Democrats. The bill would allow the secretary to reduce the federal pension of an employee who is convicted of a felony that influenced their job at VA, as well as bonuses paid to an employee who engaged in misconduct or poor performance prior to receiving it.
It also would allow the secretary to recoup any relocation expenses that were authorized for a VA employee and related to fraud, waste or malfeasance.
Under the bill, a VA employee would be given less time to respond to a VA decision for removal, demotion or suspension. The U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) also would be under a tighter schedule to issue its decisions.
“This legislation doesn’t just build back the trust of America’s veterans; it gives VA employees the trust to know that bad actors within the department will no longer have the power to taint their good name,” Rep. Roe said after passage of the bill by the House.
Several Democrats, however, voiced objections to the bill.
“I could not support the Republican’s proposal because I believe it will make it harder for whistleblowers to come forward to identify key problems we need to know,” Ranking Member Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN) said when the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs debated the bill. He had introduced amendments to Roe’s bill, but those were rejected,
Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) said that he feared that “unless we do this right, we will create an accountability system which empowers the very people that need to be checked.”
“It’s the ability of the line workers that we want to protect to be able to tell truth to power,” Takano added.
Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) said he had “concerns that we may be removing processes that improve outcomes for veterans.”
Roe acknowledged the bill has detractors during the committee markup of the bill.
“Some have said that this bill is nothing but an attack on workers’ rights. This simply is not true,” he said.
VA accountability has been a hot topic of discussion among lawmakers in recent years, but so far major legislation targeting accountability has yet to pass. Republican lawmakers had hoped to see passage of the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act prior to the end of the 114th congressional session, but the bill did not make it out of Congress.
Nor did the bipartisan Veterans First Act, which was introduced in the Senate by U.S. Sens. Johnny Isakson, (R-GA) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and supported by the Obama administration.
Roe said the recently introduced bill was drafted with the help of VA officials. Commenting on the bill during a hearing, VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD, said “it was an important step forward.”
“We are very fortunate that we have such a great workforce, but we have all seen examples where there are people that shouldn’t be working at VA that it has been too hard to get them to leave,” he told lawmakers.
Several advocacy groups also signaled their support for Roe’s bill.
The American Legion National Commander Charles Schmidt wrote in a letter that “the bill, as currently written, would bring additional accountability measures to the Department of Veterans Affairs while strengthening protections for whistleblowers.”
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) Legislative Director Tom Porter wrote in that group’s letter of support that “not enough has been done to ensure that the VA is equipped with the necessary authorities to address workforce accountability.”
Also supporting the bill, Veterans of Foreign Wars National Legislative Director Carlos Fuentes wrote that “for far too long, underperforming employees have been allowed to continue working at VA, simply because the processes for removal are so protracted.”
The bill was strongly denounced, however, by the National Federation of Federal Employees. The organization said that “if enacted, this bill would instill a fear of retaliation from supervisors and political staff among our dedicated VA workforce.”
“The bill reduces the level of evidence required for an adverse action by granting the VA Secretary full authority to demote or fire upon his or her discretion, lighting the runway for politically corrupt and bad managers to demote or fine anyone they target. Yet the bill notably excepts VA political appointees from his new accountability authority,” the organization explained in a statement.