Opponents say legislation would "abolish the civil service" at VA.
The House moved closer on Wednesday to stripping all employees at the Veterans Affairs Department of most of their due process rights, looking to expand a law enacted last year that applied only to VA’s senior executives.
The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee approved the 2015 VA Accountability Act by a party line vote, with Republicans calling it necessary to change the status quo at the department and Democrats arguing the bill oversteps sound policy. Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., accused the panel’s Democrats of prioritizing VA’s workforce over those it serves.
“This is about what’s right,” Miller said in an impassioned defense of the legislation, which he authored. “The status quo doesn’t work. Are you going to stand with the veterans or stand with the bureaucrats?”
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 at the department engaged in wrongdoing. The legislation would allow the secretary to remove any VA employee based on performance or misconduct; 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), provide them with seven days to respond and an opportunity to defend themselves. Those rights would be stripped if the bill were signed into law.
H.R. 1994 also would extend the probationary period for new VA employees from one year to 18 months, and allow the secretary to extend that even further. It would limit the secretary’s authority to fire or demote an employee who is a whistleblower, in an effort to protect those workers from intimidation and retaliation.
Any employee with a claim filed through the Office of Special Counsel -- which investigates accusations of whistleblower retaliation -- or through a new process created by the bill cannot be fired under the new provisions of the bill. Democrats still expressed concern that whistleblowers would not be fully protected, and Miller promised to work with them to appease their concerns before the bill comes up for a vote on the House floor.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., was the most vocal opponent of Miller’s legislation, instead offering his own measure as an amendment. Takano said his alternative would still bring accountability to VA without eroding the rights of its workforce.
“I’m opposed to abolishing the civil service at the VA,” Takano said. “I’m opposed to giving managers the ability to threaten the livelihood of rank-and-file employees.” He added he did not want to allow employees to be fired “at the whim of capricious or retaliatory” managers.
The Republican majority on the committee rejected Takano’s amendment, which would have suspended pay for certain employees appealing a negative personnel action but kept the current process for such an appeal in place. Democrats supported the replacement bill, arguing Miller’s proposal carried “unintended consequences.”
Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., said the Miller legislation would have a “chilling affect” on hiring at VA, as physicians will not want to go through the process of getting their medical degrees just to become at-will employees. VA, some lawmakers noted, has already struggled to fill the thousands of vacancies Congress authorized last year. Republicans rejected that argument, saying hundreds of millions of Americans go to work each day as at-will employees.
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said Miller provided a false choice when alleging lawmakers who did not support his bill did not support veterans. VA managers, he said, already possess the ability to fire employees if they follow the procedures in place. He also called the personnel debate a right-to-work discussion cloaked under a different name.
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 220,000 non-management VA employees, said in a letter to committee 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.”
The Senior Executives Association, meanwhile, wrote a letter of its own that argued the bill does not go far enough to punish rank-and-file employees. While the legislation deals primarily with expediting the appeals process through the MSPB, SEA said employees covered by collective bargaining agreements typically use union grievances or arbitration procedures to fight adverse actions. Miller’s bill, therefore, would continue to target non-union backed managers, while letting rank-and-file employees -- who can “eschew MSPB proceedings” in favor of more favorable options -- off the hook.
“If this committee is truly interested in fostering accountability at the VA,” SEA President Carol Bonosaro wrote, “it must consider all legal channels of relief available to employees facing adverse actions, and not just the MSPB.”
Miller defended his bill by saying 99 percent of VA employees are “hard-working, dedicated public servants,” but that it is “nearly impossible” to fire the other 1 percent.
“There are some rotten people that work at the department that need to be fired, not protected,” Miller said.
He added he was not executing an attack on American workers, but assisting veterans and VA’s good apples who “deserve better.” Miller said the legislation would not hurt recruiting, as potential employees will be attracted to an agency eradicated of bad employees that hurt morale. He called the argument that the reforms would end the civil service “astonishing,” noting lawmakers overwhelmingly supported bringing the changes to senior executives last year.
“Our primary mission is to support our veterans,” Miller said. “Everything else, including the bureaucrats, should take second place.”
Kellie Lunney contributed to this report.