Dr. David Shulkin, at his Senate confirmation hearing on Feb. 1, 2017.

Dr. David Shulkin, at his Senate confirmation hearing on Feb. 1, 2017. (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON – The House easily passed legislation Thursday that would allow the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs to quickly fire, demote or suspend VA employees and recoup bonuses.

The VA Accountability First Act of 2017, H.R. 1259, has widespread support among veterans organizations that see the measure as a tool to root out “bad apples” and a perceived culture of corruption within the department. It passed the House with a vote of 237-178.

“The lack of accountability at the VA isn’t just a failure to our heroes, it’s dangerous,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the bill’s sponsor.

If the bill passes the Senate, President Donald Trump’s advisers would recommend he sign it into law, the administration wrote in a statement released Thursday.

“[I]t is critical that federal employees be held to the highest performance standards, and be accountable when those standards are not met,” the statement reads. “H.R. 1259 would require that VA employees continue to be held to high standards of performance and conduct.”

The House shot down an amendment by Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., that he said would help the legislation pass in the Senate. The amendment sought to maintain more options for front-line VA employees to appeal any disciplinary action against them. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif, offered a similar amendment that also failed.

Walz expressed concern the bill, as is, would stall in the Senate,and the VA disciplinary process would remain slow and inefficient.

A bill similar to the VA Accountability First Act passed the House last September, but never made it to a vote in the Senate.

"The process of getting legislation into law to be enacted by the agencies means compromise must be there,” Walz said. “I think we come back in October, and this isn’t done yet. This is the ‘perfect’ getting in the way of the ‘good.’ And, I would argue, the zeal to get it done in the way of due process. We just need to get it right.”

The bill would shorten the time that VA employees would have to appeal any disciplinary action against them and require quicker determinations from the Merit Systems Protection Board, which hears the appeals.

Last year, there was outcry from the veterans community when the Merit Systems Protection Board reversed the VA’s attempt to fire two executives who were found to have manipulated the hiring system to move to positions of lesser responsibility while maintaining the same salary.

Also in the legislation is a change to allow the VA secretary to reduce the pension of a VA employee who receives a felony conviction, if it influenced their job performance. The secretary could recoup bonuses if employees performed poorly on the job and recoup relocation expenses if employees were found to have committed fraud, waste or malfeasance.

In presentations to veterans organizations and testimony to Congress, VA Secretary David Shulkin listed accountability as his top priority. The bill was drafted with help from Shulkin and VA’s legal counsel.

"You have to have the right people caring for veterans. We’ve all seen examples where there are people who should not be working in VA, where it’s been too hard to get them to leave,” Shulkin told the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs on March 7. “I think your accountability bill is an important step forward in that.”

The American Federation of Government Employees, a union that represents approximately 220,000 VA employees, has attempted to fight the legislation. Marilyn Park, a legislative representative with the union, called it “terrible” and said it would strip employees of their due process rights.

The federation’s concern is mostly centered on a measure in the new legislation that goes a step further from the original and would eliminate VA employees’ option to initiate a grievance procedure through their unions.

“We have never seen such an aggressive attack on collective bargaining rights in the VA,” Park said.

Currently, an employee facing discipline who doesn’t want to appeal through the Merit Systems Protection Board can issue a complaint with their union, which could be resolved through collective bargaining.

Roe argued those procedures can extend up to 350 days. Walz sought through his failed amendment to maintain the procedures but limit them to 21 days. He contended eliminating grievance procedures altogether would weaken protections for whistleblowers who could face backlash from management.

Thirteen veterans and military organizations have come out in support of the bill, including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Concerned Veterans of America, the American Legion and Paralyzed Veterans of America.

“Very rarely do you see us, the American Legion, IAVA, PVA, all these groups united among one issue,” said Dan Caldwell, policy director for conservative-leaning Concerned Veterans of America. “It’s very telling the major groups are all united around this.

In Shulkin’s testimony March 7, he said he needed from Congress “the carrot and the stick,” meaning he also wanted authority from Congress to better recruit and retain employees.

The House Committee on Veterans' Affairs advanced a bill last week that would establish a promotional track system for some employees, offer career training and fellowship positions, and create a standardized exit survey at the department, among other things. It’s expected to go to the House floor for a vote Friday. Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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