Jeb Bush: Working for Uncle Sam Should Not Be ‘Lifetime Employment’

Jeb Bush speaks at a town hall meeting in Columbia, S.C., on Monday. Jeb Bush speaks at a town hall meeting in Columbia, S.C., on Monday. Rainier Ehrhardt/AP

Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush wants to make it easier to fire federal employees across government, not just at the Veterans Affairs Department.

“We need to have a reform that is far broader than what Congress has passed [the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act], and I frankly think that this should be the norm across the board, not just at the VA,” Bush said, to applause, at a town hall Monday in Columbia, S.C. The group he spoke to included many veterans.

“You know, when you talk this way it sounds to people sometimes [like] you are anti-government worker -- no. I think we need to empower government workers and pay them more when they do a good job. But when they don’t do a good job they should be able to be fired, and you’ll get fewer people doing bad work…this is how the world works,” the former Florida governor said, again to applause.

As Florida governor, Bush made it easier to fire state government workers for incompetence or negligence. “We didn’t do this in a punitive fashion," he said. "We reduced the state government workforce by 11 percent, but we got higher quality service, I believe. And we paid people more when they did a good job.”

Bush on Monday announced his seven-point plan to improve services for veterans and reform the Veterans Affairs Department, which he said needs to be a “top priority” for the next president. Holding accountable poor performers at the VA and those employees engaged in wrongdoing is part of that plan.

“I support a House bill now before the Senate that makes it easier to fire poorly performing VA employees — especially those who have wasted taxpayer money, committed fraud, or were negligent in the care of a veteran,” the former Florida governor wrote in an Aug. 17 National Review op-ed timed to coincide with his town hall appearance on Monday. “This isn’t just about punishing incompetence, it’s about allowing talented VA employees to be rewarded and creating incentives for the highest-quality care.”

The House bill Bush is referring to is H.R. 1994, which the House passed in July right before it left for August recess. The bill would give the VA secretary much more flexibility to demote and fire corrupt or poor-performing employees, not just top officials. It essentially would expand to the entire VA workforce the authority of the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which made it easier to get rid of senior executives engaged in wrongdoing at the department. Bush’s plan said the “firing authority” targeted at senior executives in the 2014 Choice Act should apply to all VA employees.

“Right now, the law allows for firing the SES employees, 370 employees out of 330,000 more or less,” Bush told the South Carolina audience. “C’mon. This should not be lifetime employment.”  Bush, who repeatedly referred to the whole department as the Veterans Administration (its old name) rather than Veterans Affairs during his speech, argued that “you can protect people’s rights without making it a guarantee that you are going to have the job as long you want. There has to be much more accountability.”

As it turns out, Bush’s rival for the GOP presidential nomination Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is sponsoring the companion bill to H.R. 1994 in the Senate. The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee in July approved Rubio’s bill.

Many federal employee advocates question the constitutionality of the so-called VA employee accountability bills, saying they destroy long-standing civil service protections, and gut due process afforded to employees subjected to adverse personnel actions.

Last week, the head of the Merit Systems Protection Board warned federal employees that legislative efforts making it easier to fire workers at the Veterans Affairs Department soon could expand to include other agencies. “Today, it’s the VA. Tomorrow, it could be your agency,” said MSPB Chairman Susan Tsui Grundmann. MSPB is the small agency that adjudicates appeals of adverse personnel actions from federal employees who’ve been fired, suspended, furloughed, demoted or had their pay cut.

In addition to more accountability for VA employees, Bush also said he wants to expand the Choice program so more vets can access health care outside of the VA system as well as improve health care for female vets.

For more of Bush’s comments and positions on the federal civil service, check out this July 17 story from Eric Katz.  

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