Possible drawbacks of the VA firing bill scheduled for Wednesday vote

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The House is set to vote this week on a bill that would give the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs authority to fire or demote senior executives for perceived performance problems without going through the usual administrative procedures.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) added the measure to the weekly docket on Thursday, the same date VA Secretary Eric Shinseki testified about reports that VA health clinics throughout the country have cooked their books to hide treatment delays, some of which may have affected patients who died while waiting for care.


VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst).

Ironically, the American Legion has called for Shinseki’s removal because of the alleged coverups, along with other problems such as a longstanding backlog of disability claims and preventable deaths at various VA hospitals. If the secretary departs, his critics would have to wait for a replacement to fire senior officials for the recent controversy.

Shinseki said during the hearing that he is “mad as hell” about the reported treatment delays, and he vowed to stick around until he improves VA services for veterans or President Obama asks him to resign.

MORE: Shinseki faces tough questions on VA scandal, vows to ‘accomplish a mission’

Although firing VA officials may quell the recent outrage over reported coverups, the Senior Executives Association has raised concerns about the House bill. Below is a summary of the measure’s drawbacks, as outlined in recent statements from the group:

* Due process: Senior executives can appeal firings and demotions to an administrative panel known as the Merit Systems Protection Board, which determines whether the personnel actions were warranted. However, the hearings are informal and the decisions are non-binding for agency executives, unlike with rank-and-file employees.

The SEA said the House bill would rob employees of the right to recourse when department chiefs wrongly punish their workers. They also noted that accountability processes already exist for senior executives.

Agencies must provide a 30-day written notice when they decide to remove senior executives. The officials can then argue against removal, choose to resign, or return back to work at a lower position. They may also be eligible for immediate retirement.

* Politicizing senior leadership: Senior executives are supposed to be nonpartisan employees who are free from political influence and corruption. The House bill would remove the due process system that serves as a barrier to that type of pressure, according to the SEA.

“With fear of retribution by an agency head, the career [senior executive service] could well become a politicized corps that bends with the political winds, rather than serving the American people free from political influence,” the SEA said in a February statement.  

* Trial by media: When scandals emerge, cabinet secretaries would be be prone to firing fire senior executives to dampen the ensuing firestorm. The SEA contends that optics, rather than the policy needs of the government and the American people, would drive such decisions under the House measure.

* The VA isn’t afraid to fire poor performers: The department last year removed more than 3,000 employees, including “several senior executives,” according to the SEA. “Just because it doesn’t make headlines doesn’t mean it did not occur,” the group said in an April statement.

* Many senior executives are veterans: The SEA said nearly one-third of career senior executives at the VA are veterans who “share a commitment to continued public service.”

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) sponsored the House bill, which is backed by a bipartisan group of 40 lawmakers.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has introduced companion legislation in the Senate. His measure is still under consideration by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

For the sake of fairness, here is an outline of Miller’s arguments in favor of the House bill.

Accountability: In a March speech about his proposal, Miller complained that senior executives have a “right to fail in their jobs with little threat of serious punishment.”

Little evidence of proper discipline: Miller claims there is scant proof that the department is properly disciplining executives who fail.

In his March remarks, the chairman said VA officials “have repeatedly pointed to non-disciplinary actions such as employee retirements and transfers to bureaucratic slaps on the wrist, such as temporary written warnings, in a disingenuous attempt to create the appearance of accountability.

No one wants to work without accountability: Critics have said the VA firing bill could scare quality recruits away from the department or cause existing managers to leave for fear of unjust punishment.

But Miller asked: “How many top-tier managers do you know that enjoy working in an environment where it is nearly impossible to get fired for poor performance? And what kind of example does it set for rank-and-file VA employees when they see executives who have presided over mismanagement that has led to veteran suffering receive bonuses instead of disciplinary actions?”

The White House has said Obama remains confident in Shinseki’s abilities and expects he will take appropriate action to resolve the record-keeping issues once the investigations into the matter are complete.

Unlike the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars has refrained from calling for Shinseki’s removal, instead saying he needs to quickly restore confidence in the VA health system. The group has also called on Congress to do a better job of overseeing the network.

Aside from Shinseki, the American Legion called for the removal of two other VA executives: Robert Petzel, the undersecretary for health-care, and Allison Hickey, the undersecretary for benefits.

Petzel resigned from his position on Friday after Shinseki asked him to step down, according to an Associated Press report. But the resignation did little to satisfy veterans groups, including the American Legion, which noted that the VA already announced in September that Petzel would retire this year.

In a statement on Friday, Miller described the resignation as “the pinnacle of disingenuous political doublespeak.”

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks(at)washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye, and The Fed Page for more federal news. Submit news tips and suggestions to federalworker@washpost.com.

Josh Hicks covers Maryland politics and government. He previously anchored the Post’s Federal Eye blog, focusing on federal accountability and workforce issues.

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Josh Hicks · May 19, 2014

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