WASHINGTON — House lawmakers approved a pair of contentious veterans policy measures on Thursday which would make it easier to fire Veterans Affairs employees and allow some "mentally incompetent" veterans to own firearms.
Both measures have drawn criticism from Democrats in recent days, who questioned why the bills were rushed ahead of widely supported proposals like a plan to reform the appeals process for veterans disability benefits.
But Republicans insisted the legislation was needed to protect the health and welfare of veterans. Both measures passed largely along party lines
"We're here on the floor today to protect the constitutional rights of our heroes and to make sure we're taking care of them like we promised we would," said Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo.
The two bills, both sponsored by House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe, R-Tenn., received the backing of the White House and Department of Veterans Affairs. But they face an uncertain future in the Senate, where Democratic opposition could stall their progress indefinitely.
The first — which passed 237-178 — 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. It also allows VA officials to recoup bonuses and specialty pay in certain instances where fraud or abuse is later discovered.
It has received support from a host of veterans groups by fierce opposition from union supporters like American Federation of Government Employees, who called it "politicizing the workforce and gutting frontline employees’ basic worker rights."
But Roe said "real reform" at the department won’t occur at VA unless lawmakers "provide the secretary with the tools he needs to swiftly discipline employees who don't meet standards our veterans deserve, or fail in their sacred mission to provide world-class health care and benefits to the men and women who have served."
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Ranking Member Tim Walz, D-Minn., said he supported the idea behind the bill, but not the specifics of it. He said he worries it erodes workers’ appeals rights, and unsuccessfully tried to amend the measure to better match Senate-backed accountability proposals from last year.
"This doesn't get us there, nor does it have a chance to become law," he said.
The second measure — which passed 240-175 — would prohibit VA officials from submitting records of veterans with severe mental illnesses to the federal criminal background check system, thereby preventing them from purchasing firearms. Exceptions would be made for court orders mandating the conditions be reported.
Critics have called the practice an invasion of privacy and a violation of some veterans’ constitutional rights. Opponents of the bill have called it a common-sense practice designed to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of unstable individuals, for their own safety and that of the public.
The National Rifle Association supports the change, while gun control activists have opposed it.
Earlier in the week, a coalition led by retired Gens. Stanley McChrystal, David Petraeus, Peter Chiarelli, and Wesley Clark wrote a letter to lawmakers saying the proposal would "put America’s veterans who need our support the most in harm’s way, by providing them with easy access to firearms."
But Roe argued that in many cases, veterans who are deemed unable to handle their finances can be indirectly barred from buying a weapon, even if they pose no real threat to the public.
"It's hard enough for some people to admit they need help," he said. "Imagine how much more difficult it is when they fear they will be stigmatized and isolated … (or) that a VA bureaucrat may decide that they are incompetent and take away their constitutional rights."
No timetable has been set for when Senate leaders will take up the bills.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.