WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators will introduce a new Veterans Affairs accountability legislation Thursday that features a sped-up firing process for misbehaving employees, a mechanism for stripping those workers of ill-gotten bonuses, and an endorsement from key congressional leaders.
The measure represents lawmakers' best chance at sweeping department reforms since the wake of the 2014 VA wait times scandal, which forced the resignation of then VA Secretary Eric Shinkseki and thrust problems at the massive bureaucracy into the public consciousness. It also would reinforce President Donald Trump's repeated promises to clean up the embattled department, ridding it of what he sees as widespread incompetence and apathy in the workforce.
It comes after repeated failed attempts last year between House and Senate veterans policy leaders to find a compromise on changes to department employment rules after accusations the proposals cut too deeply into federal workers' rights. This legislation, which closely matches similar proposals passed by the House earlier this year, already has the endorsement of top leaders from both chambers.
The measure is being introduced by Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.; and Jon Tester, D-Mont. The latter two are the top ranking lawmakers on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, which is expected to take up debate on the measure next week.
Rubio has been a frequent critic of VA and the author of several similar bills pushing for more firing authorities for department managers.
"To fully reform the VA and provide our nation’s veterans with the quality care they were promised and deserve, we must ensure the department can efficiently dismiss employees who are not able or willing to do their jobs," he said in a statement Thursday.
"We must make real changes that put the well-being of our service members before the best interests of bureaucrats."
The introduction comes just two days after a federal court struck down a 2014 law which shortened the appeals process for senior VA executives.
Members of Congress had called that rule change an important tool to rid the department of problematic managers, but the appeals court ruled the law was unconstitutional because it violated protections for those federal employees.
Whether the new law can hold up under the same legal scrutiny remains to be seen. Federal union officials have criticized past proposals as unfairly blaming staffers for systemic failures at the department and unjustly depriving them of due process.
They’ve also lamented lawmakers’ attempts to treat VA employees differently than other federal workers, questioning the need for new rules for a single department.
But senators said they are confident the new legislation will withstand those challenges. Tester called it "common sense solutions" to VA’s problems and said it will "hold bad employees accountable while protecting the hardworking folks who care for our veterans."
Isakson said the measure would give department leaders "the tools necessary to discipline bad employees in a timely manner while protecting whistleblowers from the threat of retaliation and ensuring the quality of care that our veterans receive at the VA."
Under the measure, the VA secretary would have the authority to reprimand or fire any senior executive in a 21-day internal department grievance process. Rank-and-file employees would have similar job actions appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board, with a review process of no more than 180 days.
Both are significantly shorter time frames than existing rules.
The legislation also includes language which would allow VA leaders to claw back employee bonuses or relocation expenses, or reduce a former employee’s pension, if they are convicted of a felony related to their job. VA leaders in recent years have maintained they have no current authority to take those kinds of punitive actions.
Under the bill, VA leaders would be required to provide more training on whistleblower rights and be prohibited from firing employees who have filed complaints through official channels.
The department would also see expanded hiring authorities if the legislation becomes law. VA secretaries could directly appoint individuals as medical center directors and other leadership offices, which VA leaders have argued would translate into more highly-qualified candidates for those posts.
In a statement, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe, R-Tenn. — who sponsored the House accountability bill — praised the "bipartisan agreement" of the Senate plan and said he would support the measure if it is advanced to the House.
House Democrats largely opposed Roe’s measure, but the Senate bill already has several Democratic co-sponsors.
Officials from Concerned Veterans for America, one of the most vocal critics of VA employment rules in recent years, also offered their backing for the measure, even though they had been vocal supporters of more stringent appeals rules.
"The changes (from the House version) don’t undermine the main aim of the bill, to reform VA," said Dan Caldwell, policy director for CVA. "We think this is a good accountability measure."
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.