Veterans Affairs officials insist their decision to dump fast-track firing powers over concerns about their constitutionality won't hurt department accountability, but critics see it as a major misstep.
Last week, VA leaders informed Congress they will no longer use new procedures put in place by lawmakers in August 2014 to handle discipline for senior executives, after the Department of Justice called them unconstitutional.
In a statement Friday, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson said moving ahead with the process would be "irresponsible" given those legal questions, and "would only hinder VA's ability to hold senior officials accountable who have engaged in wrongdoing."
On Monday, VA Secretary Bob McDonald told audience members at a Brookings Institution event that the process had only been used for nine executives in the last two years.
"What we don't want to do is have a disciplinary process go on and then have it overturned later for a technicality, because the law is overturned," he said.
"We're using the old procedure. The old procedure is fine. Frankly, the new procedure just affects the amount of time for appeals. It really didn't affect the process all that much."
But critics see the move as a betrayal by VA department officials of their promises to clean up the department.
"Everyone knows VA isn't very good at disciplining employees, but this decision calls into question whether department leaders are even interested in doing so," House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said in a statement.
"VA is a place where egregious employee behavior, such as armed robbery participation and wait-time manipulation, is routinely tolerated. This decision underscores the urgent need for civil-service reform across the federal government."
Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., called VA's decision "outrageous and unconscionable." Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, attacked VA leaders for "unilaterally refusing to enforce key elements" of congressionally backed reforms.
The McDonald said he sees the long-term solution to VA's the accountability problems, McDonald said, is to be Isakson’s Veterans First Act, a sweeping veterans omnibus measure that which includes new employment rules for a host of VA employees.
Among other provisions, the bill would require all appeals by executives to be heard by the VA secretary instead of an outside arbiter, grant expedited firing and hiring authorities, and shorten the appeals process for every VA worker.
"The provisions that [the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee] have put in the bill, VA supports," McDonald said. "That's the ultimate answer. So I'm hoping that will be passed soon."
That measure has been stalled in the Senate for the last month. House lawmakers have offered their own revised accountability measures, but several of them rely on the same basic framework as the now-challenged 2014 bill.
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.