Former Presidential Candidate Tries Again To Remove Bad VA Employees

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced the bill. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., introduced the bill. Paul Sancya/AP

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is sponsoring a new accountability bill that aims to make it easier to fire and demote all Veterans Affairs employees, and would prevent department senior executives from receiving any bonuses over the next five years. The legislation is a companion bill to one Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., introduced earlier this month.

The 2016 VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act, introduced on Wednesday, is the latest effort by lawmakers to change the disciplinary process for VA employees and top career officials, essentially by reducing the time allotted for it to play out. The measure also would give the secretary clear authority to rescind bonuses, retirement benefits and relocation expenses from employees under certain circumstances.

Additionally, the legislation would prohibit all VA senior executives from receiving awards or bonuses from fiscal 2017 through 2021.

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Under the bill (S. 3170), rank-and-file employees who have been fired because of performance or misconduct, and appeal that decision to the Merit Systems Protection Board, would not receive pay, bonuses, or certain other benefits while the appeal is pending. Senior executives would no longer be able to appeal removals or demotions to MSPB; instead they could appeal to an internal Senior Executive Disciplinary Appeals Board. But the secretary could reverse that board’s decision.

“It is simply unacceptable that it can take years to fire one employee for poor management or misconduct,” Rubio said.

The former Republican presidential candidate has made stronger accountability for VA employees somewhat of a signature issue, sponsoring another bill – now stalled – that aimed to make it easier to fire poor performers at the department. The latest effort from Rubio and Miller is in response to a recent Justice Department decision not to enforce a key accountability component of the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act on constitutional grounds. That prompted the VA to announce it would no longer use the Choice Act’s expedited firing authority for senior executives.

Rubio said in a press release that he and Miller “drafted this legislation to comply with” the recent Justice decision. “The revised bill will take away any doubt that these concerns have been addressed and will ensure that the VA secretary can use expedited authority to manage the department,” the release said.

S. 3170, like Miller’s bill, also attempts to strengthen whistleblower rights, and would withhold bonuses from managers who don’t treat whistleblower complaints seriously, or who retaliate against such employees. Another big section of the legislation aims to fix the lengthy and complicated disability claims process for veterans.

 The major employee accountability provisions in the bill would:

  • Impose a shorter disciplinary process for rank-and-file employees who are fired or demoted. The entire process – from notification to the MSPB’s decision on an appeal – would be limited to 77 days.
  • Give the VA secretary authority to strip pension benefits from VA senior executives who are convicted of a crime that influenced their job performance, and then fired. The bill also 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. 
  •  Allow the VA secretary to recoup bonuses from VA employees when appropriate, with notification and an opportunity for appeal.
     
  • Allow the VA secretary to recoup relocation expenses from VA employees who’ve engaged in misconduct, with notification and opportunity for appeal.

Rubio’s bill contains provisions that are similar to the Senate’s Veterans First Act, most notably the elimination of MSPB appeal rights for senior executives. But the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act contains measures that target the pay and benefits of problem rank-and-file employees, not just senior executives. The Veterans First Act, which has stalled in the upper chamber, also would reduce the amount of time an employee has to respond to proposed disciplinary actions. But earlier versions of that bill contained some stronger accountability measures for the rank-and-file that didn’t make it into the final legislation.

The Veterans First Act also includes more hiring and pay flexibility for the VA to recruit health-care professionals, measures that are not in the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act.

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