Lawmakers still must bridge major divides before they’ll be able to agree on reform bill.
While significant policy gaps remain among lawmakers working to overhaul the Veterans Affairs Department, legislators from both parties and houses agreed on Tuesday that making it easier to fire employees is essential to any reform effort.
Members of both the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committees pledged to move quickly on a compromise bill to revamp the department, repeatedly stating at the initial conference meeting they must seize the opportunity to effect change. Nearly every legislator spoke of the need to increase accountability within the bureaucracy and to punish those who were complicit in covering up extended wait times for veterans seeking care at VA facilities.
“Most people are surprised you even need a law to make this possible,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who introduced the VA Management Accountability Act in the Senate. “It’s common sense.”
Some members of the conference committee were careful to praise the efforts of most VA employees. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said the department “should be proud” of its recent accomplishments.
“We shouldn’t castigate those who are innocent and we shouldn’t punish VA employees at large,” Brown said. At the same time Congress and VA must hold poor performers accountable, he added.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said final legislation must allow due process. The House-backed bill would allow the VA secretary to fire senior executives at will, while the Senate bill would provide employees with an expedited hearing with the Merit Systems Protection Board.
“The VA relies on qualified, committed professionals,” Hirono said. “We should be doing more to recruit these individuals. There are long-term benefits of attracting a high quality workforce to the VA.”
Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, took issue with the House provision, noting that targeting Senior Executive Service employees would not impact the offenders mired in the current controversy. Those employees work in VA-specific positions created in Title 38 of U.S. Code, while SES workers fall under Title 5.
Lawmakers repeatedly took shots at VA leadership, while standing behind rank-and-file employees who blew the whistle on agency malfeasance.
Democrats and Republicans were polarized on certain key issues. Several conservative members spoke of the need to reform the culture at VA without “throwing money at the problem.” The Congressional Budget Office found the Senate bill would add $35 billion over the next three years to VA funding, while the House measure would add $44 billion over the next five. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Richard Burr, R-N.C., criticized CBO’s accounting.
Both bills would increase veterans’ access to private care for those who experience long wait times or live far from a VA facility. While the compromise bill’s price tag remains a large hurdle before a measure can be sent to President Obama, conference leaders were optimistic a deal will be reached.
“I am confident we will come together to pass significant legislation,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., co-chair of the committee. His partner, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said, “We have a lot of work to do and not much time to do it.”