House lawmakers discussed a bill Wednesday that would expedite firing of U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs employees and limit appeals of those decisions.
Republicans have called it a restoration of accountability for veterans and Americans who are “fed up with bad VA employees” not being appropriately disciplined, said House Veterans Affairs’ Committee Chairman Mike Bost, a Republican from Illinois.
“Veterans are at the core of the mission, not bureaucrats,” he said at the hearing.
VA does not support the bill, saying when there appears to be a delay in addressing a case of misconduct, which Bost questioned, it’s not because the agency is lacking power to deal with it. It’s because it takes time to conduct a thorough investigation, said Rondy Waye, executive director of Human Capital Programs at the agency.
A perceived delay on the front end would be there whether the agency used the bill’s procedures or not, he added.
The Restore the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability Act, introduced last month by Bost and supported by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), clarifies similar legislation signed by President Donald Trump in 2017. However, that law has been mired by legal challenges at federal courts, the Merit Systems Protection Board and the Federal Labor Relations Authority.
Lewis Ratchford, the agency’s chief security officer, said in his statement that VA is concerned the bill would continue to throw up time-consuming legal objections, “creating uncertainty and potentially leading to a continued pattern of overturned disciplinary actions.”
For that reason, Secretary Denis McDonough said in March the agency wouldn’t be using some of the authorities, saying that the law “wasn’t really helping us manage our workforce as much as it was getting us in front of federal judges and other administrative bodies,” Military Times previously reported.
Patrick Murray, the legislative director at Veterans of Foreign Wars, said while the original law may have been rendered inert by legal interference, the new bill would fill gaps and allow for proper implementation.
For several years, and increasingly so as the agency has taken on more services for burn pit victims, Congress has been on the VA’s doorstep asking about workforce accountability. In 2014, there were questions about whether employees were being appropriately dismissed in connection with a scandal about juked performance metrics.
Montana Republican Matt Rosendale said the 2017 act led to a 50% increase in removal actions.
“I have yet to understand why this legislation is necessary right now when VA has been clear that they already have the authority they need to discipline employees,” said Mark Takano (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, in an emailed statement to Federal Times. “I am concerned about the due process issues we saw with the 2017 law, with VA spending a lot of time in court over the last few years for legislation they said left them no better off.”
“Under the old law, employees were often subject to discipline or termination that was completely out of line with the alleged poor performance or misbehavior,” said Randy Erwin, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, to Federal Times. “Right now, the department is experiencing a staffing crisis. Should the VA Accountability Act be restored, these issues will only be exacerbated, and our nation’s veterans will suffer the consequences.”
Some those who opposed the 2017 bill have said the Restore Act’s underlying philosophy resembles that of Schedule F — a plan by the Trump administration to curb employment protections and due process that are inherent to the merit-based civil service.
Part of the bill proposes aligning disciplinary processes for middle managers with those used for the Senior Executive Service, prompting concerns that more severe consequences intended for high-profile employees would become applicable to lower GS-level or wage-grade supervisors when the nature of the work is not necessarily the same.
There’s also concern from agency leaders that harsher policies will create a chilling effect while the agency is going through hiring surges to accommodate implementation of an August law that expands health care coverage for possibly millions of veterans who were exposed to toxic fumes from burn pit fires.
“If you diminish the rights to VA employees below those for the rest of the government, below the doctors and nurses and others, for example, caring for active duty military, [you have] a situation where the VA can’t recruit effectively,” said Daniel Horowitz, AFGE’s deputy legislative director.
Unions are also balking at a provision of the bill that says procedures would supersede collective bargaining agreements.
The VA has the second-largest federal workforce behind the Department of Defense with nearly 400,000 employees and issues roughly 4,900 to 5,000 disciplinary actions a year on average.
“We need to consider what is best for veterans and VA and whether this is something VA actually needs,” Takano said.
With reporting by Military Times’ Leo Shane.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.