Senate Panel Approves Major VA Accountability Bill

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., has said he would like to get the package on Obama's desk by Memorial Day. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., has said he would like to get the package on Obama's desk by Memorial Day. David Goldman/AP file photo

This story has been updated with the outcome of the markup

The Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on Thursday afternoon unanimously approved a major legislative package that affects how the Veterans Affairs Department hires, fires, pays and manages its workforce of more than 300,000 employees.

Panel members reported out the nearly 400-page omnibus bill, known as the Veterans First Act, in an afternoon markup in the hopes of advancing the legislation to the Senate floor sooner rather than later. VA Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., has said he wants to get a negotiated bill passed by both chambers to President Obama before Memorial Day. Lauren Gaydos, a spokeswoman for the committee majority, said they didn’t know when the full Senate would consider the legislation.

No amendments were offered to the massive bill during the public markup, which the committee announced Thursday morning.

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“I am so proud to chair the most bipartisan committee in the Senate,” said Isakson on Thursday. “We’ve proven that yet again with our unanimous vote for the Veterans First Act to change the culture at the Department of Veterans Affairs and bring needed health care and benefits to our veterans.”

The omnibus, which covers a range of veterans-related issues including VA employee accountability as well as health and education benefits for vets, would move senior health care executives into Title 38, allowing the VA secretary more flexibility in setting pay and disciplining those accused of poor performance or misconduct. The legislation also aims to expedite firing for all department employees by reducing the amount of time an employee has to respond to proposed removals.

But some have criticized the bill for being too soft on accountability for rank-and-file employees. Some provisions in an earlier draft of the bill contained tougher measures aimed at getting rid of poor performers. For instance, in the draft bill, any reprimands or admonishments would have become part of an employee’s permanent personnel file, unless the secretary decided to remove them. But that changed in the final bill: Reprimands and admonishments would automatically disappear after five years if they were still in an employee's file. 

Additionally, in the draft bill, a supervisor’s assessment of new employees’ performance during their probationary periods (typically one year) would have determined the length of that trial. But in the final version of the Veterans First Act, if supervisors don’t weigh in within a certain time frame, then the employee automatically graduates from probation.

The American Federation of Government Employees had complained in an April 18 letter about the accountability provisions in the draft bill. The union has said it stands by that letter, but has not commented publicly on the final version of the omnibus since the committee unveiled it on April 28.

But Isakson has defended the accountability measures included in the final package, citing the support of whistleblower advocates and several veterans’ groups, including the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., has called the deal “a positive development,” saying that if the legislation passes the Senate he “looks forward to immediately engaging in conference committee negotiations in order to move a VA reform package to the president’s desk.” The House panel was not involved in crafting the Senate bill, although there are a few accountability provisions included in the Veterans First Act that are similar to stand-alone measures Miller has sponsored in the lower chamber.

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