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.