A key House panel on Wednesday advanced plans to make it easier to fire Veterans Affairs Department employees and harder to punish whistleblowers, despite accusations from Democrats that the legislation tramples on the Constitution.
The bill — which still has a long path through Congress and the White House before becoming law — would give the VA secretary the authority to punish any department employee "if [their] performance or misconduct warrants such removal or demotion."
That would streamline the appeals process to under one month and limit how long employees could sit on paid suspension.
House Veterans Affairs Committee members said the legislation builds off similar employment authorities passed by Congress last summer that applied only to top-level department officials. It's also designed to address frequent complaints from lawmakers about the VA's inability to dismiss workers at the heart of several high-profile scandals.
VA leaders have said that the process is complex and time-consuming, but also necessary to make sure employees' rights are being respected.
But bill sponsor and committee chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., accused those officials of too often opting for paid suspensions and job transfers over real solutions. He noted that one infamous recent case in which an employee was found guilty of taking a VA hospital patient to buy drugs took more than a year to resolve.
"There are some rotten people in the department who need to be fired," Miller said in an emotional speech at Wednesday's hearing. "This is about doing what's right. Are you going to stand with bureaucrats or veterans?"
The committee approved the measure on a 14-10 party line vote, with Democrats calling it an attack on VA employees and unions.
"This is a right-to-work debate we have going on here," said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn. "Let's not kid ourselves."
The measure includes language that would allow VA officials to pull back some pension benefits for fired employees and authorizes the Government Accountability Office to study "the amount of time spent by VA employees carrying out labor organizing activities."
Committee Democrats unsuccessfully attempted to add some employee protections back into the measure, saying Miller's proposal makes every VA worker "permanently probational." But Republicans on the panel said that would water down the legislation.
The bill includes language to provide special protections for VA whistleblowers, blocking retaliation by managers upset by their actions. The panel also unanimously adopted an amendment to authorize travel expenses and work credit for whistleblowers who testify before Congress.
Democrats on the panel said they support many provisions of the measure and predicted an intense floor fight over the employment protections.
VA officials have not offered an official position on the new rules but have expressed concerns about violating workers' rights with similar past proposals. Several high-profile veterans groups have backed the measure, arguing that changes are needed to improve customer service at the department.
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.