Members of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee returned from their election break with a warning for VA leadership: Don't repeat the mistakes of the past.
In a hearing covering the department's efforts to reform its operations and image in the wake of nationwide patient care delay scandals, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., committee chairman, expressed dismay at the lack of accountability in the department and suggested VA lawyers are confused about how to implement new firing authorities granted by Congress this summer.
Miller and others said bad advice from subordinates is already hurting VA Secretary Bob McDonald's efforts to clean up his department.
"This is the same issue that I believe doomed Secretary (Eric) Shinseki's tenure," Miller said, referencing the former secretary's forced resignation in May.
"I hope you take my suggestion seriously when I tell you that VA's entrenched bureaucracy must be shaken up in order for any true reform … to succeed."
Less than an hour before the hearing, VA officials announced the firing of former Pittsburgh VA Healthcare system director Terry Gerigk Wolf, who had been suspended from the post as officials investigated her handling of a deadly Legionnaires' disease outbreak in 2011.
Wolf is only the second senior executive fired since McDonald took over the department in July, just a few days before President Obama signed into law new authorities designed to hasten dismissal of problem officials.
McDonald has publicly defended that short list, insisting that he cannot dismiss any employees while criminal investigations are underway.
On Thursday, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson added to that defense, saying department leaders must take time with their administrative response to ensure that firings won't be overturned.
"We're going to send the wrong message to veterans if our decisions are reversed on appeal," he said.
But committee members questioned whether officials have been too afraid of appeals to react to clear incompetence and malfeasance by employees. Several took aim at VA's decision to give to-be-dismissed employees five days to respond to charges before termination, a time frame they've labeled as an extra, unnecessary appeal.
At least four senior executives have used that time period to resign or retire, avoiding disciplinary action.
"You claim there is a constitutional requirement" for not firing VA execs immediately, Miller said. "We don't believe there is."
The firings issue has become an ongoing point of criticism for McDonald, who came into the job boasting years of private-sector management experience and promising to bring efficiency and accountability to the embattled VA bureaucracy.
He was confirmed unanimously by the Senate in July, but over the last few months has weathered increasing criticism from Congress and veterans groups. In turn, he has begun criticizing the congressional barbs, saying they should write better laws if they're unhappy with the rules governing employee discipline.
Miller said he plans to introduce legislation in coming days that would reduce retirement benefits for any VA executives dismissed from their posts, making sure they aren't rewarded for years of mismanagement.
Gibson declined to back that proposal, and federal employees unions have objected to such personnel actions as unfair and potentially unconstitutional.