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Bill Bans Bonuses for VA Senior Executives

A major House spending bill would prevent performance awards for top career officials in fiscal 2017.

Senior executives at the Veterans Affairs Department would not receive bonuses in fiscal 2017 under a major House spending bill unveiled on Tuesday.

A provision in the fiscal 2017 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations bill prohibits the department from using any funds in the legislation for senior executives’ performance awards. It’s the first time the language has been included in the base MilCon-VA spending bill. An amendment banning bonuses for all VA senior executives was successfully added to the fiscal 2016 MilCon-VA legislation, but was not included in the eventual omnibus package Congress had to pass at the end of last year to avoid a government shutdown. There have been other legislative efforts over the past few years to limit or prohibit VA’s senior executive corps from receiving annual performance awards, which they are eligible for under Title 5.

The House Military Construction and VA Appropriations Subcommittee will mark up the legislation on Wednesday.

The press release accompanying news of the fiscal 2017 MilCon-VA bill said the legislation included the VA senior executive bonus ban “to stop taxpayer funded rewards to underperforming or poorly performing employees.” But senior executives who receive a “less than fully successful” performance evaluation already cannot receive a performance award under Title 5.

Jason Briefel, interim president of the Senior Executives Association, called on House lawmakers to “carefully review SEA's survey of VA executives to learn how their actions are contributing to a toxic atmosphere, and how they ultimately share in the responsibility for VA’s troubles filling executive leadership roles.” Briefel pointed to the more than 70 percent of the survey’s respondents who expressed frustration with, and a fear of, Congress, saying that “draconian and punitive measures that undermine the secretary’s ability to reward exemplary performance is certainly not a solution to this problem.”

The VA is seeking more flexibility in how it hires, pays and fires its senior executives. VA Secretary Bob McDonald and others have talked about the difficulty the department has had in competing for top medical talent. As of late January, nearly 30 percent of the department’s SES slots were vacant, while 70 percent of the current corps is eligible to retire immediately or will become eligible in 2016.

A Nov. 11, 2015, USA Today report found that the VA paid out more than $142 million in performance-based bonuses in 2014 to senior executives and other employees despite the department’s wide-ranging management problems.

At the time, the newspaper’s editorial board criticized the department for rewarding employees involved in mismanagement with bonuses. “Misbegotten bonuses are not the VA’s most vital concern, but they're a troubling sign of ongoing dysfunction,” the piece stated. “If the agency can’t even stop handing out rewards to employees implicated in scandals, prospects seem poor that it can fix its far more complex problems.”

According to the Office of Personnel Management, VA in fiscal 2014 rated just 19.1 percent of 272 senior executives (career, non-career, and limited term) in the department at the highest level, which determines performance awards. That percentage was the lowest reported governmentwide. Thirty-six percent of the VA’s career SES received a bonus in fiscal 2014, also the lowest percentage reported among the major agencies, according to the OPM report.  

The average individual performance award for career senior executives at VA in fiscal 2014 was $9,450 – among the lowest across government.

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