WASHINGTON — The House veterans panel advanced new accountability legislation Wednesday designed to speed the firing of problem employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs and reform the bureaucracy's "broken civil service system."
The move came despite concerns from Democrats, who called the measure too aggressive and unlikely to get Senate approval, leaving the current flawed system in place for years to come.
But Republicans insisted the measure is a critical step ahead in reforming department operations and improving veterans' care, and have repeatedly cited incidents of criminal behavior by VA employees who are transferred or suspended rather than fired.
"Ninety-nine percent of VA employees are hard-working public servants," said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee. "Unfortunately, when the VA secretary comes across the small number of employees who don't meet VA standards ... it is nearly impossible to discipline them."
Ridding VA of bad employees was a campaign promise of President Trump, and has been a major focus of conservative advocates since the 2014 wait time scandal which uncovered numerous department administrators covering up appointment problems at VA hospitals.
But union officials have called the measures an unfair attack on workers' appeals and due process rights, and an opportunity to unfairly blame lower level employees for management mistakes.
In his confirmation hearing last month, VA Secretary David Shulkin promised "far greater accountability" at the department in months to come.
"A basic function of any chief executive is to be able to get the right people working in the organization," he told senators. "And those that do stray from the values that we hold, they have to leave the organization. We don't currently have that right on either side."
Lawmakers have made multiple attempts at approving new accountability rules for the department in recent years, and passed a measure designed to ease the firings of senior staff in 2014.
But officials with President Obama’s Department of Justice later judged that law to be unconstitutional, and VA officials stopped enforcing the measure. The move enraged congressional Republicans, who accused the administration of being too passive in rooting out failed employees and criminals from the department’s ranks.
The new bill would allow the VA secretary to fire or suspend any employee for poor performance or misconduct, regardless of their position.
Those employees would receive advance notice of discipline of not more than 10 days, and the secretary would have five days after the action to respond to any objections.
If those employees appeal the punishment, judges with the Merit Systems Protection Board would have 45 days to issue a ruling.
Those provisions go to lawmaker complaints that disciplining problem employees within current federal rules is too time consuming, sometimes taking months of hearings and reassignments.
The legislation would also allow VA officials to recoup bonuses paid to employees later disciplined for misconduct, and reduce the federal pension of employees convicted of a felony "which influenced their job performance." Those decisions can also be appealed.
Similar provisions were included in House-passed legislation last year, which failed to advance in the Senate. Senate officials have not yet weighed in on the new legislation.
House committee ranking member Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., unsuccessfully tried to amend the new measure with Senate-backed language containing similar disciplinary changes, but Republicans knocked down that bid.
Walz said he worries that without closer coordination with the committee’s Senate counterparts, Congress is unlikely to address the issue at all this year.
The measure passed out of committee on a party-line voice vote.
The House committee on Wednesday also advanced measures to remove the August expiration date of the VA Choice Card program, update gun ownership rules for veterans’ deemed unfit to handle their own finances, and to expand hiring authorities for physicians for the VA secretary.
No timetable has been announced when any of the measures may come before the full House for a vote.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.