Frustrated by a lack of firings in the wake of a series of Veterans Affairs scandals, the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Thursday offered new legislation that would make it easier for the VA secretary to dismiss any employee.
"VA's tradition of transferring problem workers, putting them on paid leave or simply allowing them to go virtually unpunished continues because current Civil Service rules make it extremely difficult to properly hold employees accountable," Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said in a statement.
"The department's overwhelming lack of accountability … is precisely the type of situation that makes the average citizen lose faith in their government and causes quality health care professionals to think twice when considering to work at VA."
The measure goes far beyond legislation passed by Congress last summer to speed the firing of senior VA executives, and will face stiff opposition from federal labor unions that have criticized similar moves in the past as a violation of due-process rights.
But Miller said the move is necessary because of VA's "well documented history of not holding problem employees accountable."
VA officials have said only a small handful of workers have lost their jobs as a result of revelations last year concerning patient care delays and records manipulation at more than 100 facilities.
But lawmakers have questioned whether anyone has been held accountable for those mistakes, noting that many of those dismissals were tied to other issues.
Miller's bill would give the VA secretary authority to fire any employee based on performance or misconduct, and set a strict 52-day process for all appeals. It would also extend new employees probationary periods from 12 months to 18, making it easier to dismiss them before they receive full Civil Service protections.
The legislation would also limit the secretary's power to remove or demote any employees acting as whistleblowers, in reaction to numerous reports to the committee of retaliation and dismissal of workers who have highlighted past misdeeds.
Miller also wants the Government Accountability Office to look into VA time and resources being used for labor union activities, a frequent target of conservatives in the House.
VA Secretary Bob McDonald — appointed in the wake of the wait-times scandal — repeatedly has pledged to punish wrongdoing and clean up the department's image.
But Miller and other lawmakers on his committee have questioned the effectiveness of those efforts thus far. The chairman called his new legislation the next logical step in the department's reform efforts.
"Why would anyone want to work for an organization where corrupt behavior that harms veterans is not only tolerated but often goes virtually unpunished?" Miller said. "Everyone knows accountability is a major problem at the department, and right now VA leaders must work with Congress to solve it."
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.