WASHINGTON — The House passed a bill Wednesday that would give Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki new power to fire and demote senior executives in the troubled department.
The vote came just hours after President Barack Obama spoke about the health care scandal involving patient deaths and possible VA misconduct across the country.
The bill, which passed 390-33, takes aim at VA management by allowing the secretary to fire executives without administrative due process. Opponents in the House called it a knee-jerk reaction that would politicize executives and do little to solve deep problems with access at the agency.
Congress intensified calls this week for quick and decisive changes at the VA as reports of an off-the-books waiting list that might have led to the deaths of 40 veterans at a Phoenix hospital snowballed into a national scandal. Similar reports of wrongdoing have surfaced at facilities in at least 10 states, engulfing Shinseki and his agency.
Amid growing public frustration, Obama called the embattled secretary to the White House on Wednesday, pledging support as the VA inspector general conducts an investigation and vowing to hold employees accountable for any uncovered wrongdoing. Also attending was White House deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors, who last week was assigned to review VA operations nationwide.
Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who sponsored the VA Management Accountability Act in the House, said he was deeply disappointed by Obama’s reaction to what he called the biggest scandal in VA’s history.
“The best way to reform the VA is to get rid of the dead wood,” Miller said.
His bill would strip away the existing administrative process currently needed to remove or demote federal senior executives who work at the agency, meaning Shinseki alone could decide what merits termination instead of performance reviews required by federal law.
Miller said “it is easier for someone to get a bonus than it is to get some type of discipline” at the VA and that has led to gross negligence and incompetence throughout the agency.
The House bill would give the secretary the power he needs to quickly remove problematic senior executives and restore public confidence, he said.
Other House lawmakers said they were frustrated by perceived inaction by the VA and White House.
“In the real world, you get fired if you fail to do your job. Not in the VA,” said Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich. “I’m sick and tired of hauling VA officials in front to the [House Veterans Affairs] committee to hear tired excuses.”
Similar legislation sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has been introduced in the Senate.
But Shinseki has said he does not need the new authority — the agency fired 3,000 employees last year — and senior executive employees urged Congress to reject the proposal this week.
Federal law requires that senior executives be fired if they receive two unsatisfactory performance ratings in five years or two less than totally successful ratings in three years, according to the Senior Executives Association, a trade group representing federal managers. But the VA already has the authority to fire a senior executive after one unsatisfactory performance review, the group wrote in a May 20 letter to Congress opposing the Miller bill.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., also opposed the legislation, saying it would break down an administrative wall designed to protect senior federal executives from being fired at will by presidential political appointees, such as Shinseki.
“All of us are outraged at the allegations that have been made, but that’s not what this legislation is about,” Hoyer said. “This legislation is about a knee-jerk reaction to a very bad situation painting with a very broad brush.”