Department of Veterans Affairs Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson

Department of Veterans Affairs Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson AP Photo

Expedited Firing Is VA Chief’s No. 1 Priority, But Bill to Allow That Is in Limbo

Divide over additional funding for the department threatens House-Senate conference negotiations.

The interim chief of the Veterans Affairs Department spoke repeatedly on Thursday of the need to clean house at the agency, saying only administrative red tape has prevented him from firing more employees.

Also on Thursday, however, House-Senate negotiators took a significant step backward on reaching a compromise on a bill that would grant VA officials authority to more easily remove poorly performing staff.

Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson fielded several questions from members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee in the morning on why more employees have not been terminated, while lawmakers met in the afternoon to review new proposals to fix VA. Asked during the hearing the No. 1 thing he needed to reform the agency, Gibson said he wanted the “flexibility to expedite personnel actions.”

“I will use every authority I’ve got and use them to the maximum extent possible to hold employees accountable,” Gibson said. He added, however, that he is “learning the hard way” how difficult that process can be in federal government.

In addition to increased firing authority, Gibson and the VA are asking Congress for $17.5 billion in emergency funding -- and 10,000 new employees -- to address an array of issues at the agency. Republicans, led by House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., have consistently maintained the VA’s problems are not due to a lack of funding, but simply poor management.

Still, Miller offered compromise legislation on Thursday that would immediately provide $10 billion to VA as a “no year” appropriation, meaning there would be no time constraints on when the agency must spend the money. The rest of the funding VA is seeking would then have to go through the normal appropriations process.

Democrats blasted the proposal, saying Republicans proceeded unilaterally and without consultation with the bipartisan, bicameral conference committee created to resolve the differences between House and Senate backed VA reform legislation. 

“I can only conclude, with great reluctance, that the good faith we have shown is simply not being reciprocated by the other side,” said Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on the Senate floor.  Sanders, who is co-chair of the conference committee on the VA reform bill, refused to attend the  last-minute Thursday morning meeting called by Miller, and all but one Democrat on the panel followed suit.

Sanders quickly put out his own compromise legislation, saying it was much cheaper than what Republicans offered.

Republicans at the conference meeting emphasized the need to provide VA with increased firing authority in whatever compromise the parties reach, and to ensure the authority covers employees governed by both VA and governmentwide provisions of federal statute.

At the nearly Democrat-less meeting, Miller said reports that “talks are on the verge of collapse” were greatly exaggerated. Asked by reporters after the meeting if he would meet with Sanders on Thursday to resume negotiations, however, Miller said he had a “very full schedule.”

Lawmakers have set the goal of reaching a deal before Congress breaks for the August recess, meaning it has one week to reach a compromise.

When asked if the ball is now in Sanders’ court, Miller said: “I don’t know where the ball is. I wish I did.”