VA Accountability Measure Will Attract Talented Senior Execs, Lawmaker Argues

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said the bill is in “no way meant to disparage the hardworking employees who go to work every day and do the right thing." Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said the bill is in “no way meant to disparage the hardworking employees who go to work every day and do the right thing." J. Scott Applewhite/AP file photo

The sponsor of a House bill that would crack down further on misconduct and poor performance among senior executives at Veterans Affairs said on Tuesday that his legislation ultimately will attract, rather than scare away, talented career employees.

H.R. 473, the 2015 Increasing the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability to Veterans Act, contains several provisions that worry some senior executives and their advocates, including capping the number of Senior Executive Service members eligible for bonuses, and requiring all the VA’s top career leaders to switch jobs within the department at least once every five years.

“I know many are concerned that continuing to impose personnel measures on VA employees that are not applicable to the rest of the federal government will only disincentivize good workers from coming to the department,” said House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., during a subcommittee hearing Tuesday on several veteran-related bills, including H.R. 473. “But I think the opposite is true. Good workers want to work in good agencies and with other hardworking employees, and [they] want to know that bad actors will be held fully accountable.”

The legislation also would give the VA secretary the power to strip pension benefits from VA senior executives who are convicted of a crime that influenced their job performance, and then fired. It would prevent senior executives about to be fired because they were convicted of such a felony, but who instead retire, from receiving their full retirement benefits. The secretary would be allowed to take away the government contribution portion of the pension for the time period in which the employee was engaged in behavior warranting removal. The rest would be returned to the employee in a lump sum. “I believe that this is a commonsense measure as it would not require an act of treason or an act of terrorism before an employee’s retirement can be reduced, as the law currently states,” Miller said on Tuesday.

In addition, H.R. 473 would reduce to 14 days the amount of paid administrative leave for top department officials under investigation, unless the secretary can show good reason for extending that leave. “It’s ridiculous that VA is paying employees to sit at home for almost a year, in some cases, at the taxpayer’s expense,” Miller said. “That should not be the practice at VA, but unfortunately, we’ve seen it in far too many cases. It’s easier to send someone home and continue paying them, instead of making a personnel decision.”

Sharon Helman, the former career senior executive who ran VA’s Phoenix health care system when the scandal over falsifying wait lists erupted last spring, was fired in November after the department put her on paid administrative leave for nearly seven months. Helman appealed her case to the Merit Systems Protection Board after the VA fired her. Chief Administrative Judge Stephen C. Mish in December upheld Helman’s firing because she improperly accepted more than $13,000 in gifts from a lobbyist and failed to report them, not because she engaged in misconduct related to manipulating data to conceal excessive wait times for vets seeking health care.
 

While the pension and administrative leave measures would be significant changes from current law, they would not likely affect as many senior executives as the provisions related to bonuses and job reassignments. There were 346 career SES members at VA in fiscal 2013, and 63.3 percent of them received a performance award for that period, according to the latest data from the Office of Personnel Management.

Miller’s bill would allow no more than 30 percent of VA’s senior executives to receive top performance ratings and qualify for bonuses. And it directs the VA secretary to reassign once every five years, “each individual employed in a senior executive position to a position at a different location that does not include the supervision of the same personnel or programs.” The secretary could waive that requirement on an individual basis but would have to justify it to Congress.

Some observers have worried about the risk of politicizing the SES by capping the number of senior executives who can receive bonuses and reassigning employees once every five years.

But Miller argued that H.R. 473 would not hurt the recruitment and retention of talented senior executives at the department -- and that the Senior Executive Service was created to be a mobile corps. “When SES was first stood up, the whole idea was that people would not camp out in a particular position, that they would be able to spread their knowledge throughout the federal government, so this is nothing new, this is how it was first established,” Miller said during a February press conference at the department with VA Secretary Bob McDonald and other lawmakers.

On Tuesday, Miller sought to put H.R. 473 in the broader context of ongoing reform at VA, saying the bill was in “no way meant to disparage the hardworking employees who go to work every day and do the right thing” and that the legislation “is meant to help them as well as assist the secretary in his effort to turn around the VA.”

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