VA Secretary Says Department Is Working Closely With Congress on Firing Bill

VA Secretary David Shulkin testifies at his confirmation hearing. VA Secretary David Shulkin testifies at his confirmation hearing. Alex Brandon / AP

Congress and the Trump administration are working closely on a bill to make it easier to fire employees at the Veterans Affairs Department, according to the agency’s new leader.

VA is working with both the House and Senate in drafting an accountability bill, department Secretary David Shulkin told Fox and Friends in a segment aired Thursday. The measure would make it certain that any employee not fit for the VA would no longer work for it, Shulkin said.

“I’m working now, closely, with the Congress, both the House and the Senate, to make sure we have an accountability bill that allows us to make sure that if people shouldn’t be working in the VA, they won’t be working in the VA,” the secretary said.

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Pete Hegseth, former head of Concerned Veterans for America and previously under consideration for the VA secretary position, conducted the interview and pushed Shulkin to move past previous rhetoric and actually take action to rid the VA ranks of problem employees.

“Watch us,” Shulkin said. “People who don’t show up to work, who do cocaine, who are watching porn at work are going to be fired because I’m not going to tolerate it and they’re going to be out of our system.”

Shulkin explained he was prioritizing the issue because it helps not only veterans, but also the rest of the VA workforce.

“When you have one or two or three people not doing their job, they bring everybody down,” he said.

The Trump administration is likely to find a warm reception from many key stakeholders as it pursues a loosening of the strict civil service laws that often make disciplining federal employees a laborious process. President Obama signed a law in 2014 as part of a larger, bipartisan VA reform bill to hasten the firing of VA’s senior executives, but that provision is no longer being enforced after a legal challenge. A spokeswoman for Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said the panel is planning to address the accountability issue as “one of the committee’s top priorities.”

In December, members of Trump’s transition team met with more than 30 veterans service organizations. Leaders of those groups said they were “united” in their desire to see increased accountability for VA’s senior executives and agreed with Trump’s push to more efficiently weed out the department’s bad apples.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has said his panel will also prioritize expediting the firing of VA’s SES employees.

Congress and the White House are certain to receive pushback on their efforts from federal employee groups and unions; in his interview, Hegseth said groups like the American Federation of Government Employees would attempt to “water down” any bill lawmakers advance. Shulkin promised to fight against any such endeavor.

“If we get a bill and it doesn’t work,” Shulkin said, “you can expect I will be back in front of Congress and say, ‘it didn’t work.’”

Shulkin also expressed openness to expanding the role of the private sector in providing health care to veterans, saying they should have the choice to decide where they receive treatment.

“Sometimes they should go out into the private sector if something is being done better than the VA,” Shulkin said. Veterans, he added, should be “empowered to take advantage of both systems.” 

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