Lawmakers Clash With Senior Execs Over Power to Fire at Veterans Affairs

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The Veterans Affairs secretary would have more authority to fire or demote poor-performing career executives under legislation introduced Tuesday in both chambers, prompting a rebuke from the Senior Executives Association.

“This legislation would give VA leaders a tool to address a problem that continues to get worse by the day,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who is chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and the bill’s sponsor. “VA’s widespread and systemic lack of accountability is exacerbating all of its most pressing problems, including the department’s stubborn disability benefits backlog and a mounting toll of at least 31 recent preventable veteran deaths at VA medical centers across the country,” he said.

In unveiling the 2014 VA Management Accountability Act, Miller acknowledged “the vast majority” of VA’s more than 300,000 employees as dedicated and hard-working. But he has long pressured the department to remove or deny bonuses to allegedly neglectful executives he views as responsible for veterans’ deaths from such causes as Legionnaires’ disease, as documented in reports from the department’s inspector general and the Government Accountability Office.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., offered a companion bill also on Tuesday. “Current law ostensibly allows SES workers, a group representing the bulk of VA’s senior leaders, to be disciplined and fired, but there are considerable amounts of red tape involved and the process can drag on for long periods of time,” Rubio said. “This bill gets rid of these hurdles in order to give the VA secretary authorities similar to those members of Congress have to fire employees from their staffs.”

In fiscal 2012, there were 448 career SES employees at VA, Miller said.

SEA President Carol A. Bonosaro immediately issued a statement opposing the bill. “Not only is this bill a solution in search of a problem, it is unfair and does not further the goal that we all share to ensure the highest quality care for our nation’s veterans,” she said. “Nearly one-third of the career members of the Senior Executive Service working at the VA are themselves veterans. They share a commitment to continued public service, and it is a shame that the very committee that is looking for ways to increase the presence of veterans in the federal workforce would now enable firing those at the highest career levels without any due process whatsoever.”

Bonosaro linked the Miller-Rubio proposal to recent rhetoric surrounding federal employees that “is largely driven by optics rather than the policy needs of the government and the American people.” She said agencies already have the means to remove bad employees that is “nonpartisan, free from political influence and free from the corruption that plagues many other nations.”

SEA also challenged Miller’s assertion that a GAO report concluded that SEA pay was not linked to performance, saying senior executives actually are more vulnerable to removal than other employees. “Federal employees are routinely fired, and red tape is not the problem,” Bonosaro added.

After Miller raised concerns about VA executive performance last year, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki wrote the lawmaker on Jan. 31 to say he believes the department already has authority to fire poor performers. “One of the goals of the SES is to ensure accountability for efficient and effective government,” he wrote. “This is achieved by holding senior executives accountable for their individual and organizational performance through a rigorous performance appraisal program.” 

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.