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Bill Bans Bonuses for VA Senior Executives

House version of the fiscal 2016 VA spending bill prohibits funds from being used for SES performance awards.

This story has been updated.

Senior executives at the Veterans Affairs Department would not receive bonuses in fiscal 2016 under a major spending bill the House passed on Thursday.

An amendment added to the fiscal 2016 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill prohibits the department from using any funds in the legislation for senior executives’ performance awards. The amendment was adopted on a voice vote, and the chamber passed the $77 billion spending package on a vote of 255-163.

The White House said on Tuesday that President Obama would veto the House Mil Con-VA bill if it reached him.

This is the third time the amendment has been successfully offered. Rep. Keith Rothfus, R-Pa., offered the amendment – included in the two previous Mil Con-VA spending bills the House passed – and spoke on the House floor Wednesday about the widespread problems at VA. He singled out the department’s Philadelphia facility where employees mismanaged mail and manipulated data among other things, and the botched building of a new facility outside of Denver, which is way over-budget and behind schedule.

“I have always maintained that taxpayer-funded bonuses to senior executives of an organization with this sort of abysmal performance record are ridiculous,” said Rothfus, who pointed out that few senior executives have been fired for misconduct so far. “These dollars would be better spent providing our veterans with the first-rate service and care they rightly deserve.”

There were 346 career SES members at VA in fiscal 2013, and 63.3 percent of them received a performance award for that period, according to the latest data from the Office of Personnel Management. The average award amount for a VA senior executive in fiscal 2013 was $9,159, down from $12,010 in fiscal 2012.

Rep. Sanford Bishop Jr., D-Ga., said it was “nonsense” to try and penalize all VA senior executives because of the actions of some. “This amendment would make the VA a less attractive option than other agencies when it comes to recruiting and retaining quality executive leaders, and it will not have the very talent that it needs to solve the problems that it faces today, like the claims backlog and the health care deficiencies,” Bishop said on the House floor Wednesday.

Senior Executives Association President Carol Bonosaro thanked Bishop in a May 1 letter for his "strong opposition" to the Rothfus amendment. "We understand the need for accountability at the VA, and for all government employees, and absolutely support holding individuals accountable for wrongdoing if they are found to have occurred following an impartial investigation that provides for due process," Bonosaro said in the letter. "Nonetheless, SEA has strong concerns about the ongoing attacks against the SES corps at the VA, and the deleterious effects it will have on the ability of the agency to attract and retain the leadership it needs to serve veterans in the future."

Lawmakers also approved an amendment that would ban performance awards for employees in VA’s Office of Construction and Facilities Management for fiscal 2016. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., offered the provision, in response to the construction of a new VA hospital in Aurora, Colo., which originally had a price tag of $600 million but will ultimately end up costing about $1 billion, according to estimates. The office, which is under the Office of Acquisitions, Logistics and Construction, has 266 full-time employees budgeted for fiscal 2016, and manages construction projects costing more than $10 million. Roe called it “perhaps the least deserving of performance bonuses in the entire agency.”    

The troubled project, which the department was supposed to finish in 2013, is now on track for completion in 2017. Roe’s amendment states that no money in the spending bill can be used to “pay an award or bonus under chapter 45 or 53 of title 5” to any employee in the VA’s office of Construction and Facilities Management.

“How many doctors and nurses could have been hired with $1 billion that the VA’s Office of Construction & Facilities Management has set fire to?” Roe asked on the House floor Wednesday. “The answer is: a lot.”

Another amendment included in the House’s fiscal 2016 Mil Con-VA bill would prohibit funding for VA’s Appraised Value Offer program, which the department uses as an incentive to attract highly-qualified candidates for hard-to-fill jobs. The AVO program provides relocation services to employees to encourage them to move to locations that require specialized skills. The program allows a government contractor to buy the employee’s home if it doesn’t sell in 60 days.

The VA paid nearly $310,000 to move Diana Rubens, now the director of VA’s Philadelphia Regional Office, from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia in 2014, including $211,750 to a contractor through the Appraised Value Offer program, and $84,643.70 to Rubens directly for expenses including storage of her household goods, subsistence and shipment of personal items. Some lawmakers have criticized the VA for providing that amount for Rubens’ relocation. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., called it “exorbitant” and grilled Rubens about it at a hearing in April.

Click here for a complete list of adopted amendments to the fiscal 2016 Mil Con-VA bill.

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