WASHINGTON — House lawmakers on Tuesday approved sweeping changes to firing rules at the Department of Veterans Affairs, a move supporters say will help reform the second-largest federal agency and restore public trust in its workforce.
It also gives President Trump a major legislative victory. He's expected to sign the measure into law in the next few days, fulfilling his repeated promises to root out problem workers at the agency and clean up government operations.
The Senate approved the measure last week, and House lawmakers passed the legislation by a 368-55 vote, despite strong past opposition from Democrats in the chamber. Republican leaders hailed the measure as a common-sense move, one that protects whistleblowers and punishes incompetent or criminal workers.
"For far too long the failures of bad actors have tarnished the good name of all VA employees," said House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., before the vote.
"Unfortunately, despite the tireless efforts of our courageous whistleblowers, the extensive reporting on the lack of accountability by the media and the outrage of the american public, we still see far too many instances of VA employees not living up to the standards America."
Most major veterans advocates have back the measure, but union advocates have lamented the legislation as scapegoating their workers and eroding worker's appeals rights.
Under the bill, 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 that 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 bill has the support of VA Secretary David Shulkin, who has said he does not have the tools to properly discipline or dismiss problem employees. He has also repeatedly praised the VA workforce, saying the small percentage of misbehaving workers have damaged the image of the entire 360,000-plus person bureaucracy.
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, had previously expressed concerns about Republican-written accountability legislation, but said Shulkin’s lobbying for the measure played a role in changing his mind.
"He has asked for some of these things," he said. "I take that seriously. If he says this will add to accountability, if he says this will make his job better in caring for veterans, this weighs heavily."
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the committee’s ranking member last year, said that he hopes the accountability bill’s passage "will provide veterans greater confidence that the VA is prepared to meet their needs" and that Congress "shift our focus from who is fired from the VA to who is hired at the VA."
Other Democrats offered similar reserved support, saying they still hold doubts that firing more workers will help fix the department, but were confident the bipartisan measure is a step in the right direction.
Congressional leaders have struggled to pass VA accountability legislation for the last two years following a 2014 bill regarding department employment rules regarding senior executives. Federal courts later struck down that measure, calling it unfair and unconstitutional. Even with bipartisan backing, the new measure could face similar future legal scrutiny.
Officials from Concerned Veterans for America — which has made the accountability bill its primary legislative goal in recent years — called the bill's passage a critical milestone.
"This historic bill will not only change the way the VA operates, but it can serve as a roadmap for broader civil service reform across the entire federal government," said CVA Policy Director Dan Caldwell. "Lives will be saved as a result of this legislation."
Republican leaders also praised the move as victory for veterans.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.