A House committee approved legislation to hasten the disciplinary process at the Veterans Affairs Department, despite significant pushback from Democrats who said the measure unfairly targeted rank-and-file employees.
The markup represented the latest effort from Republicans to increase accountability at VA. They've tried to expedite firings and suspensions at the department since an initial reform effort in 2014 ran into legal trouble. Democrats insisted they believe in the need to rid VA of problem employees, but said the Republican plan would not properly address the root of the issue.
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., who authored the VA Accountability First Act and chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, kicked off the markup addressing the criticisms he saw coming. The measure was not an “attack on workers’ rights,” but instead an effort to grant VA Secretary David Shulkin’s request to dismiss employees when he “comes across the very few who are bad.” Roe said he did not buy the argument that the bill would negatively impact recruiting and retention, as bad employees hurt the morale of the rest of the workforce. Noting a common refrain from detractors of firing reform, Roe said the measure would not hurt the large number of veterans who work at the department.
“We don’t agree to serve in any role because we put our individual employee protections ahead of the mission,” said Roe, a veteran. “This mission always comes first.”
A key sticking point of the legislation was the elimination of the union grievance process available to represented employees as a means to appeal negative personnel actions. Roe noted that unions represent 76 percent of the VA workforce, and his intent was to reform the process for more than just a quarter of the department’s employees. Leaving open the grievance process, Roe said, would create a “gigantic loophole” for increased accountability. The grievance process takes up to 350 days to complete, he added.
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., the committee’s ranking member, said VA must “follow the laws put in place by collective bargaining agreements.”
Democrats proposed a series of amendments to reform Roe’s bill, all of which failed. Walz cautioned the latest accountability legislation would not pass in the Senate, and offered instead a compromise bill championed in the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last year with bipartisan support. Among the other failed amendments was a plan from Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., who proposed allowing the VA secretary to suspend employees without pay while an investigation in alleged misconduct took place.
Roe said anyone against his bill was standing “with an antiquated system” that was “responsible for the scandals of the past.”
The bill would give the VA secretary expedited removal authority, meaning any employee fired by the secretary would be out of a job and off the department’s rolls that day. Any employee facing removal, suspension of at least 14 days or a demotion would receive advance notice of 10 days, and the secretary would have five days in which to rebut any response the employee comes up with in that time. Those employees would maintain appeal rights to the Merit Systems Protection Board and U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
It would also allow VA to reduce employees’ pensions if they are convicted of a felony that affected their job and to recoup bonuses and relocation expenses in some circumstances. Employees facing those penalties would also be entitled to an appeal.
The measure now moves to the House floor; there is no timeline for a vote but committee staff have indicated it has support from leadership, as well as the White House and VA. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Va., has introduced companion legislation in the Senate. Concerned Veterans for America has launched an ad campaign targeting 30 House members encouraging them to support the bill. A similar bill in the last Congress was approved with a veto-proof majority, including the votes of 69 Democrats.