Senate Democrats on Tuesday blocked a bill that would allow the head of the Veterans Affairs Department to more easily fire or demote any employee for poor performance or misconduct.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., sought to expedite consideration of the legislation via unanimous consent, but Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut blocked the motion.
S. 1082 would give the VA secretary much more flexibility to fire corrupt or poor-performing employees, not just top officials. Those employees could also be demoted and have their pay cut under the legislation. The bill essentially would expand to the entire workforce the authority of the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, which made it easier to get rid of senior executives engaged in wrongdoing at the department. The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee reported out the bill in July.
Rubio said that the bill would not only help veterans, but also the “majority” of VA employees who do their jobs well. “All we’re saying in this bill is, if you work at the VA, and you aren’t doing your job, they get to fire you,” said the Florida senator. He then added: “In this instance, we are just limiting it to one agency, this should actually be the rule in the entire government; if you don’t do your job you should be fired.”
Federal employees can be fired now, but the process can be long and contentious because of civil service protections embedded in the law. “The process is so expensive, so long, so troublesome, so complicated, that in essence, they [poor employees] cannot be removed,” Rubio said of the firing process in government.
S. 1082 would not allow employees to be placed on paid administrative leave, or any other type of paid leave, during a pending appeal of the adverse personnel action. It would extend the probationary period for new VA employees from one year to 18 months, and allow the secretary to extend that even further. “We need to have a VA that is more interested in the welfare and security of our veterans than in the job security of federal employees,” Rubio said.
Blumenthal, who has offered an alternative to S. 1082, agreed there needs to be more accountability at the VA, but that any legislation affecting federal personnel laws needs to be “fully constitutional.” Rubio’s bill “fails to provide sufficient notice in advance of any firing,” Blumenthal said.
Under S. 1082, the employee could file an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board within seven days of his or her removal. MSPB would have to rule within 45 days of the appeal filing. Due process for most of the federal workforce now requires that agencies notify employees within 30 days of an adverse action (including removal), and provide them with seven days to respond and an opportunity to defend themselves.
Rubio was disappointed that the bill was blocked on Tuesday, but said, “if there’s a good faith effort [on the part of Democrats], and I believe there is, then let’s improve it and take action on it.”
The House in late July passed its version of the 2015 VA Accountability Act.
Several groups have expressed support for the 2015 VA Accountability Act, including Veterans of Foreign Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Concerned Veterans for America. CVA has launched a digital video and mail campaign urging senators to support the measure.
CVA Chief Executive Officer Pete Hegseth said in a statement Tuesday that he was disappointed Blumenthal blocked the bill and "chose to stand with Washington special interests and corrupt VA bureaucrats instead of veterans who are suffering due to the lack of accountability within the VA."
Others strongly oppose the legislation. The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 220,000 non-management VA employees, said in a June 23 letter to House VA subcommittee members it was “gravely concerned” about the legislation. The accountability bill would “destroy civil service protections and the VA’s ability to recruit and retain a top notch workforce,” wrote Beth Moten, AFGE’s legislative and political director.
Instead, Moten said, lawmakers should focus on tools to “reduce mismanagement” and avoid creating a “hostile workplace.”
Jason Briefel, legislative director for the Senior Executives Association, said the group opposes S. 1082, and “has concerns” about Blumenthal’s bill. “There is already a provision in law for any agency secretary to discipline or terminate employees for misconduct or performance,” Briefel said. “Trampling the constitutional rights of public servants at the VA -- many of whom are veterans themselves -- would be a disservice to those who have fought and died for our nation. This is yet another example of Congress failing to understand the real issues at hand and overreaching.”
Briefel added that to ensure government employees are held accountable “what we need to see is backbone and fortitude by agency leaders to follow through on the authority that they already have.”