House to Vote on Firing VA Senior Execs

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki listens at left as Veterans Affairs acting Inspector General Richard Griffin testifies Thursday. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki listens at left as Veterans Affairs acting Inspector General Richard Griffin testifies Thursday. Cliff Owen/AP

The House will vote on legislation soon that seemingly would make it easier for the secretary of Veterans Affairs to fire or demote senior executives.

The chamber will go back into session the week of May 19, when it is scheduled to consider the bill. The vote comes just after VA Secretary Eric Shinseki was grilled by senators Thursday about the department’s management and employee accountability, amid reports of veterans being put on alleged secret waiting lists for medical appointments and the recent deaths of vets who were waiting for care. On Friday, Shinseki accepted the resignation of Dr. Robert Petzel, undersecretary for health at VA. Petzel announced in the fall that he intended to retire in 2014.

The 2014 VA Management Accountability Act (H.R. 4031) would give the head of the department “greater authority” to get rid of poor performers in the Senior Executive Service “in the same manner a member of Congress can remove a member of their staff,” according to background on the bill posted on the website of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. The VA secretary could also demote the senior executive to another grade within the General Schedule pay scale.

The House is scheduled to vote on the measure Wednesday.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., has gained momentum in the past few weeks because of the burgeoning management crisis at VA. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., both issued press releases this week noting the upcoming vote and the support it has among some vets’ groups. The bill is widely supported by House Republicans, though it does have five Democratic co-sponsors. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has sponsored a companion bill in the Senate.

The Senior Executives Association has strongly opposed the legislation, calling it unfair and counterproductive. “The bill does not contain due process and is another attempt at painting federal employees as guilty until proven innocent,” SEA President Carol Bonosaro said in a statement Friday. “Veterans deserve quality care and access to health services. Telling the secretary to fire senior executives may sound good, but it does not deal with the very real issues being raised nor does it provide solutions to those problems.”

Shinseki has said he already has sufficient authority to fire poor performers. During Thursday’s Senate hearing, Shinseki said VA has forced out -- either through transfers, terminations or involuntary retirements -- 3,000 workers in each of the last two years, some of whom were senior executives. Data from the Office of Personnel Management show about 4,300 VA employees were removed or terminated from federal service for disciplinary reasons, but that figure does not include forced transfers or retirements. In fiscal 2012, there were 448 career SES employees at VA.

Agencies have the power to remove senior executives who receive unsatisfactory performance ratings – removal can mean termination or a demotion. Senior executives must be removed from the SES if they receive two “unsatisfactory” ratings within five consecutive years, or two “less than fully successful” ratings within three consecutive years. To begin the removal process, the agency must provide a 30-day written notice to the employee outlining the action. The Merit Systems Protection Board can review the action and make a non-binding recommendation to the agency; however, employees cannot appeal the actual performance rating, resulting in removal from the SES.

The House in February unanimously passed legislation including a provision that would ban bonuses for senior executives at VA for the next five years. The provision was part of a larger bill to require public universities to charge veterans attending their schools in-state tuition rates. The legislation would eliminate performance awards for members of the Senior Executive Service through 2018, which the Congressional Budget Office estimated would save $18 million. A similar bill regarding tuition rates for veterans but without the provision temporarily banning bonuses for VA senior executives was introduced in the Senate.

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