The VA bill would make firings easier. Is that a good thing?

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The Department of Veterans Affairs would have greater authority to fire senior executives under a broad proposal announced Monday to help the VA address the root causes of its recent record-keeping scandal.

The plan, developed by Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), has already won praise from many of the nation’s top veterans groups, and lead negotiators believe it is likely to pass the House and Senate before Congress begins its August recess this week.

Despite the broad support for the overall deal, senior-executive advocates strongly oppose the firing proposal, saying it would roll back civil-service protections and discourage talented professionals from joining the VA.


Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), right, and Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), who chair the Senate and House Veterans’ Affairs committees said they expect an easy passage of the bill. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

In a statement on Monday, the Senior Executives Association said it “continues to take exception to the belief that large numbers of senior executives are problem employees who are not held accountable.”

The planned legislation would allow the VA to fire or demote senior executives for “poor performance and misconduct,” according to a summary from Miller’s office. Employees would have one week to appeal the decisions, and the Merit Systems Protection Board would have to issue a ruling within three weeks.

Questions remain about whether the MSPB, which ensures fair treatment for federal workers, can handle a likely increase in appeals. The tiny agency is still digging itself out from thousands of furlough appeals that came after spending cuts last year forced many government employees to stay home without pay for several days.

“There’s no way the MSPB can process these cases within 21 days — it’s not physically possible,” said Kristin Alden, a D.C.-based attorney who specializes in federal-employment law and litigation. She added that the agency aims to issue rulings within 120 days under its own regulations.

Although the Senior Executives Association opposes the firing proposal, it supports other aspects of the deal. The group said the plans to increase funding for hiring medical personnel and lease additional facilities will help the VA meet growing demand.

“They actually did a good thing or two,” said Carol Bonosaro, the group’s president. “The system is obviously overwhelmed.”

Bonasaro said the association supports accountability for federal employees, but she argued that the firing proposal goes too far.

Senior-executive advocates claim that existing accountability measures within the Civil Service Reform Act should be adequate for removing bad actors, if used properly. But they’re fighting the perception that federal workers are virtually impossible to fire.

“A lot of the cases people complain about, it’s because the government didn’t follow its own rules,” Alden said, referring to personnel actions that are overturned because of process errors.

Similarly, the Senior Executive Association said employees are not disciplined more because they are either not engaged in wrongdoing or because “political leadership isn’t willing to use the tools” available to hold them accountable.

Sanders and Miller, who head the Senate and House veterans affairs committees, respectively, agree that something more needs to be done to prevent poor work and misconduct among the VA’s senior leaders.

Sanders said in a statement on Monday that the firing proposal “addresses the very serious problem of accountability and makes certain that dishonest and incompetent senior officials do not remain employed at the VA.”

Congress largely agrees with the two lawmakers. The House and Senate approved separate VA firing measures with overwhelming bipartisan support in May and June, respectively.

“It’s all optics,” Bonasaro said.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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