Lawmaker: VA Isn’t the Only Agency That Can’t Fire Bad Employees Fast Enough

Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said finding a compromise on how to fire people who aren’t performing is a “realistic conversation” to have. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said finding a compromise on how to fire people who aren’t performing is a “realistic conversation” to have. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

The sponsor of legislation that would make it easier to fire employees at the Veterans Affairs Department said on Wednesday he’d like to see those personnel reforms eventually extended to the rest of the federal government.

It’s still too difficult to fire poor-performing and corrupt federal employees quickly, and it’s not just at the VA, said House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., during a discussion on issues facing the department at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “If VA is the test case, VA is the test case. I would like to see it expanded.”

In July, the House passed Miller’s bill, H.R. 1994, but last month Senate Democrats blocked a floor vote on its version of the legislation. H.R. 1994 builds on the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, applying the provisions that make it easier to discipline and fire senior executives to all department employees.

Miller said he has talked to Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, about finding middle ground between the two parties and chambers to pass the bill. “We’ve got different ways that we look at it, but I think we will find a solution that we can all agree to, to pass [the bill],” Miller said. “I’m pretty stubborn, but I’m not stubborn enough to hold up a good accountability piece, even if it’s not 100 percent of what I wanted.”

Critics of loosening the restrictions related to firing career government employees at the VA, or elsewhere, argue that it’s constitutionally questionable, infringing on due process, and that it could have a chilling effect on whistleblowers. Some fear it also could be abused, leading to employees being fired as a result of political retribution. But Miller said instilling greater accountability is the fastest way to change the dysfunctional workforce culture at the VA.

“The American public wants accountability. People are angry because they don’t think their federal government is serving them well,” the Florida Republican said. “They think the government is taking advantage of them, and that’s the problem. They want people who want to do the right thing, and want to work and take care of veterans.”

Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., who also was on Wednesday’s Brookings panel and is member of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, disagreed with Miller on applying the same expedited firing provisions in the Choice Act to the entire workforce, but said finding a compromise on how to fire people who aren’t performing is a “realistic conversation” to have. “I think it’s fair to try and find this middle ground,” Walz said, adding that he agreed with making it easier to sack senior executives in the Choice Act. “These people had protections that went well above and beyond what needed to be done.”

Miller and Walz said they would both be open to looking at changing the 1978 Civil Service Reform Act which governs federal personnel regulations. “I’m certainly open to it,” said Walz, responding to a question from the audience. The Minnesota Democrat said he wants to do whatever it takes to deliver the best service to veterans in the most cost-effective way. “I don’t have an ideological dog that I am tied to in this fight,” Walz said. “What I care about is that outcome.”

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