WASHINGTON — As promised, Senate lawmakers on Tuesday passed new accountability rules for the Department of Veterans Affairs in the hopes of putting the legislation on the president's desk by the end of June.
The measure, which passed by a voice vote, eases firing rules for VA employees and allows department leaders to pull back bonuses and other specialty pays from individuals found guilty of wrongdoing.
It's the culmination of more than two years of debate on Capitol Hill on how to best manage the VA workforce and more quickly punish incompetent or criminal individuals in the federal workforce. Numerous attempts at the issue last year resulted in stalled legislation and irritated lawmakers anxious to pass some changes.
Republicans — including President Donald Trump — have insisted that fear of consequences has been missing in VA for years, creating a culture of complacency and corruption that has resulted in a failing department.
In recent years, and again on Tuesday, they cited dozens of anecdotes of VA workers delaying firing for months for offenses like neglecting patients, watching pornography at work, or embezzling federal funds.
"We're reaching into every corner of the problems at VA that exist over the last years," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. "We're making sure we make the corrections necessary to make the VA an accountable organization."
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. and one of the bill's sponsors, said he hopes the measure spurs widespread change in the embattled department.
"These men and women are veterans have sacrificed much for our country and it is our duty to take care of them when they come home," he said. "Sadly for many, this solemn obligation and promise has not been kept. Plain and simple, ineffective governance is unfair to our veterans and to the American taxpayer."
Some Democrats and federal employee advocates have pushed back against that narrative, arguing the bill unfairly limits workers' rights to create an easy political scapegoat.
In a letter to lawmakers before the vote, Senior Executives Association President Bill Valdez blasted the bill's provisions to "eliminate essential protections provided by Congress to career federal executives" and warned it would "enable undue or politically influenced terminations of dedicated VA senior executives."
But most of the major veterans service organizations have already given their endorsement of the measure, as have key Democrats in the House and Senate. Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Ranking Member Jon Tester, D-Mont., helped craft the legislation and defended it as "a bill that’s going to work."
"It's going to give the VA what they need to hold people accountable," he said. "Every once in a while we get a bad apple, and the VA needs to be able to remove that bad apple because that bad apple reflects poorly on everybody."
The voice vote allowed the measure to pass the chamber without any formal recorded opposition.
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.
The legislation also mandates VA leaders 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.
The legislation now heads to the House, where Republican leaders are planning to move quickly on the legislation.
In a joint statement, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and Ranking Member Tim Walz, D-Minn., released a joint statement praising the Senate measure and asking House leaders to schedule a vote as soon as possible.
"We are one step closer to creating a true culture of accountability at VA while protecting the whistleblowers who are essential to identifying and addressing problems within the department," Roe said.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.