Rep. Charles Dent, R-Pa., said lawmakers felt they had to "send a signal."

Rep. Charles Dent, R-Pa., said lawmakers felt they had to "send a signal." Rich Schultz/AP file photo

VA Senior Executive Bonus Ban Advances

Opponents argue that provision in major spending bill will further damage department’s recruitment and retention efforts.

Senior executives at the Veterans Affairs Department would not receive bonuses in fiscal 2017 under a major House spending bill approved by the Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.

The fiscal 2017 Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations measure now heads to the House floor, and includes a provision that prohibits the department from using any funds in the legislation for VA 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.

Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., offered and then withdrew an amendment that would have limited the provision, banning bonuses only for those VA senior executives the inspector general verified as “being accountable for inappropriate scheduling practices at a facility for which the individual performed supervisory or management functions.” Farr said his amendment would prohibit performance awards to “people who’ve screwed up, but release it for the rest of them.”

Pennsylvania Republican Charlie Dent, who chairs the MilCon-VA appropriations subcommittee, opposed Farr’s amendment, saying that while he understood its intent, “in the current climate, we felt we had to send a signal.” From Philadelphia to Cincinnati, the VA has tried to punish senior executives for alleged wrongdoing. The department’s inspector general regularly has been investigating multiple allegations of misconduct related to scheduling, management and patient care at VA facilities across the country since the 2014 patient wait times scandal erupted at VA’s facility in Phoenix.

“We felt banning SES bonuses in committee might deter broader bans on the floor,” said Dent. “Anything we do to weaken this will likely produce pushback on the House floor.”

Jennifer Hing, spokeswoman for the majority on the House Appropriations Committee, said in March that the panel “had many member requests for similar language,” when asked who had pushed for inclusion of the measure prohibiting performance awards for all VA senior executives.

Farr ultimately withdrew his amendment during Wednesday’s markup. “I don’t want to put it to a vote if it’s going to be controversial, and not going to be bipartisan,” he said. 

Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., said during Wednesday’s markup that he was “not particularly pleased” about the measure’s inclusion in the overall bill. “As I’ve stated over the last three years, this language will not provide any solution in the short term, and in fact may have more long term consequences and compound the very problem it attempts to address,” said the ranking member of the Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee. “All the language will do is make the VA a less attractive option than other agencies when it comes to recruiting and retaining quality executive leaders.”

The Senior Executives Association, which supported Farr’s amendment, opposed the bill’s provision. “A universal ban would only serve to increase the already taxing difficulty the VA is currently facing when it comes to attracting and retaining talented senior executives,” wrote SEA Interim President Jason Briefel in an April 12 letter to the full committee. “Ending the pay-for-performance system entirely—which is what this provision would essentially do for VA senior executives—would have a harmful effect on employee morale and agency performance.”

Briefel also pointed out that the VA secretary “already has ultimate authority to raise, lower, or concur with an SES performance award, and limiting the ability of the secretary to reward the VA’s best executives will be detrimental to the agency’s mission delivery.”

The fiscal 2017 MilCon-VA bill appropriates money for housing, training and equipment for military personnel and funds vets’ benefits and programs. The legislation provides $81.6 billion in discretionary funding, $1.8 billion more than the fiscal 2016 level. That discretionary funding figure includes $73.5 billion for the VA alone; adding mandatory funding to the number, the legislation includes a total of $176.1 billion for the VA.