WASHINGTON — Lawmakers see the new Veterans Affairs accountability legislation moving through Congress as a way to make much needed but mostly technical changes to employment rules for that department.

Union officials see is as an attack on federal workers nationwide.

Labor representatives are pushing back strongly against what they see as opponents' attempts to use VA policies as a way to jump start wholesale reforms to government employment rules, promotion schedules and worker protections. They insist the push has less to do with helping veterans than it does with marginalizing unions across federal agencies.   

"The VA is ground zero right now," said J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "It was DoD a few years ago. I'm sure we'll see it in other agencies.

"It's not about improving services or being a more efficient government. It's about being anti-union, and not having collective bargaining in the government."

At issue are a series of bills in the House and Senate aimed at updating hiring and firing rules for VA.

Compromise legislation — backed by Republicans and Democrats in both chambers — would give the department's secretary more authority in dismissing almost any of the nearly all of the​360,000-plus employees there, and change the appeals process for aggrieved individuals.

Bill sponsor Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., called the measure a "common sense" approach to reforming the department, getting rid of problem employees more quickly by giving VA leaders broader authorities.

"I know there majority of people who work at VA are hard workers," he told members of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on Wednesday. "Nothing in this bill is designed to punish or stigmatize them in any way. But the VA secretary doesn't have the authorities he needs right now."

Critics of VA in recent years have offered anecdotes of employees using drugs, watching pornography and abusing patients but still remaining on the department payroll while federal appeals are exhausted.

The accountability measure has earned support from VA leadership and numerous veterans advocacy groups, and is expected to move through both chambers in coming months.

But union officials call the appeals changes too restrictive, and believe the overall aim of the measure is still too focused on punishing lower-level workers instead of fixing systemic workforce problems.

"This legislation could trigger a return to the spoils system of patronage that was a hallmark of the federal civilian workforce (in the past)," said Bill Valdez, president of the Senior Executives Association.

"Passage of this legislation can only serve to exacerbate VA’s hiring woes, further straining its ability to attract talent to over 45,000 vacant positions at the agency."

More than that, the officials point to the accountability compromise as part of a larger pattern to use VA employment laws for political points.

Earlier on Wednesday, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee lawmakers passed legislation along party lines to crack down on employees conducting union business during official work hours, even when the duties may overlap with VA responsibilities. Cox called it a clear attack on his members.

Democrats in the House offered similar objections, but failed to stall the bill. Committee Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn.,said the measure "is not a Republican attack on unions, it’s a common sense change" to make sure resources aren’t being wasted on activities that don’t directly benefit veterans.

Officials from the conservative group Concerned Veterans for America — who have long lamented unions’ influence in the VA workforce — called their objection to the new legislation proof of their inability to adapt.

"Unions are often directly responsible for blocking the same measures that will help the VA hold bad employees accountable and fix the toxic culture at the department," said CVA Executive Director Mark Lucas in a statement. "The VA exists to protect the lives of veterans, not to keep unions operational."

Cox bristled at those accusations.

"I don’t want anyone who is bad working at VA," he said. "But this is an attack on unions, on a professional civil service workforce. It changes the whole nature of (the federal workforce)."

He said he wants to see more cooperation with lawmakers on finding compromise, and more support for his assertion that the failings of VA in recent years have come from poor management decisions more than corruption among lower-level employees.

Cox notes his group backed VA reform legislation that stalled in the Senate last year, largely because House critics labeled it too union-friendly to be effective.

The House bill regarding official time is unlikely to advance in the Senate due to Democratic objections, but the accountability measure already has the endorsement of top party leaders. Senate lawmakers are expected to advance that out of committee before the end of the month.

Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at lshane@militarytimes.com.