Measure to hasten firing of VA employees advances
The Biden administration has warned the new procedures are unnecessary and would only complicate the disciplinary process.
House Republicans on Wednesday advanced a measure to make it easier to fire employees at the Veterans Affairs Department, renewing an effort that previously ran into a series of setbacks in court and various oversight entities.
The House Veterans Affairs Committee approved the bill along party lines over objections from Democrats and the Biden administration. The committee voted down a series of amendments offered by Democrats that would have stripped the bill of many of its provisions to lessen the due process rights for VA employees.
The Restore VA Accountability Act (H.R. 4278) would allow the department’s secretary to remove or demote any employees and, for supervisors, eliminate their ability to launch an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board, the independent agency designed to hear such cases.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough earlier this year ended the implementation of disciplinary provisions included in the 2017 VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, citing its repeated defeats in court and elsewhere. The decision marked the second time in the last decade that Congress tried and failed to speed up firing at VA. In 2016, the department announced it would no longer use a 2014 law aimed at making it easier to fire career senior executives after it similarly suffered a series of legal setbacks.
“The vast majority of VA employees I meet are inspiring,” Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., who chairs the VA committee and introduced the legislation, said at Wednesday's markup. “They really are. They put veterans first. Unfortunately, there are a small number of VA employees who hurt veterans by harming the quality of care and benefits they receive.”
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., disputed that notion and said no organization “can be improved by mass firings and demoralization.”
“The whole premise of this bill is based on a belief that there simply must be thousands of terrible VA employees out there just waiting to be fired [and] I believe there is nothing further from the truth,” Takano said.
The Biden administration forcefully pushed back on the renewed efforts at a hearing earlier this month, saying the legislative proposal was unnecessary and a retread of failed ideas. VA officials predicted the measure would once again lead to “extensive litigation and constitutional challenges,” which would create more uncertainty at the department and eventually lead to more disciplinary actions getting overturned. Additionally, VA said further reforms are superfluous.
“We are confident that the authorities currently available to the VA are sufficient to hold employees accountable for misconduct and poor performance,” the department stated. “We do not believe any legislation is necessary right now to ensure accountability.”
Under the new legislation, VA would set up a hastened, internal grievance process for supervisors who wish to appeal a disciplinary action. Following a final determination, employees could then take their case for judicial review, but not to the Merit Systems Protection Board. The measure would reinstate several provisions that were struck down from the 2017 law, such as lowering the evidentiary threshold for upholding firings, blocking judges from challenging the penalty imposed, removing the requirement for "performance improvement plans" from the pre-disciplinary process and applying the system to medical workers in "hybrid" Title 38 positions.
Bost’s bill has bipartisan support in the Senate, where Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has signed on to companion legislation. Democrats at Wednesday’s vote, however, unilaterally expressed opposition to the bill, saying the measure would have unintended consequences and unfairly take away key civil service rights.