House Republicans on Wednesday passed a controversial Veterans Affairs reform bill that would make it easier to fire department workers despite concerns of prominent Democrats that the changes would do little to provide better services.
The measure also includes an overhaul of the department's benefits appeals process, a provision that veterans groups have fervently lobbied for and White House officials have praised. But that's likely not enough to get bipartisan support to move the measure in the Senate.
A similar accountability measure has been stalled for months there, and Democrats in that chamber have also expressed concerns about the constitutionality of the proposal. White House officials this week asked for the appeals reform aspects to be moved as a separate, stand alone bill, apart from the problematic firing rules.
But supporters said the action (which passed by a 310-116 vote, with all opposition from Democrats) is needed to reform the culture within the department.
"The average today to dismiss somebody from the VA is more than a year," said House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. "That is unacceptable. We need to protect the VA for those who go to it, the veterans who need the service."
Unlike past VA accountability legislation, many of the provisions would apply to any department employee, not just senior leaders. The bill would shorten the firing and demotion process to no more than 77 days, give the VA secretary the authority to recoup bonuses and suspend pensions of disciplined employees, and limit workers' appeals of those actions.
"Everyone in government knows that the civil service laws that were once meant to promote the efficiency of government are now obsolete and make it almost impossible to remove a poor-performing employee," said bill sponsor Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee.
"I want a civil service system at VA that serves and protects veterans, not bad employees."
Union officials and Democrats argued the measure will do much more than that. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., ranking member of the House veterans committee, said it will remove critical federal employee protections and hurt the VA workforce.
"The majority (party) continues to treat the constitutional rights of VA employees as inconvenient obstacles to evade instead of fundamental civil service objections to uphold," he said. "We can pass (this law), but we will be right back here a year from now when the law is deemed unconstitutional."
That was the problem earlier this year, when VA leaders announced they would no longer enforce accountability laws passed by Congress two years ago because of Department of Justice concerns over their constitutional viability.
Meanwhile, the intraparty and intrachamber accountability fight has stalled the appeals reform plans, which VA officials have said is their top priority for this year.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers joined leading veterans organizations at a Capitol Hill rally Wednesday before the House vote to urge party leaders to find a solution to get appeals done in the waning months of session.
Currently, benefits cases that go to appeal take multiple years to complete. VA leaders have outlined a plan to cut that wait down to less than a year, but need congressional approval to move ahead with the changes.
Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., speaks at a press conference with veterans organizations on Sept. 14, 2016, about the need for veterans benefits appeals reform. The House passed a controversial bill including that provision later in the day.
Photo Credit: Leo Shane III/Staff
Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., whose legislation outlining those changes was included in Miller’s accountability measure, said she is upset that lawmakers haven’t already acted on the issue.
"I’m mad, because this bill could go to the president right now," she said. "Why get it tangled up in the politics of the accountability bill?" Follow @LeoShane
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.