Updated and corrected
UPDATE 6:33 p.m.: The House passed the bill 390 to 33, sending it on to the Senate, where its fate remains uncertain.
The House of Representatives is poised to pass legislation Wednesday evening that would make it easier for the secretary of veterans affairs to fire or demote career employees and managers who are found to be involved in cases of negligence or mismanagement.
The bill has been on the books since February, but the timing couldn't be better: The vote comes on the same day that President Obama gave his first public, extended remarks on allegations of long wait times and false record-keeping at VA medical centers in several states.
Here's a quick primer:
What's the name of the bill?
What would it do?
The legislation targets members of the Senior Executive Service — the nation's highest-ranking civilian federal employees — who work for the VA and are found to be involved in cases of mismanagement, delayed or insufficient medical care or backlogs. If passed, the bill would give the secretary the power to "remove any individual from the Senior Executive Service if the Secretary determines the performance of the individual warrants such removal."
Federal civil service rules make it incredibly difficult to outright fire a career civil servant. This bill essentially gives the secretary the ultimate firing authority, similar to what a CEO might enjoy at a large company.
If the secretary wants to punish someone, they could fire them, or demote them out of the SES and into the lower General Schedule pay schedule. The secretary then would have 30 days to inform the House and Senate veterans committees of any such decision.
Is the bill in direct response to the current allegations?
Kind of. It's not a direct response to recent reports of botched record-keeping and long wait times at a VA facility at Phoenix and nearly two dozen facilities across the country. But it does address a long-standing criticism of the VA: that employees tied to cases of mismanagement or preventable veteran deaths often go unpunished and in some cases receive promotions or five-figure bonuses shortly after cases of wrongdoing are exposed at a VA facility.
During a hearing on the bill in March, Miller credited "hundreds of thousands of dedicated VA employees" and that the legislation "is in no way intended to disparage these hard-working individuals. In fact, my bill is meant to help them as well as the department as a whole."
But Miller noted that several cases of preventable deaths at VA facilities have been tied to mismanagement — at VA facilities in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Columbia, S.C., August, Ga., and elsewhere. The VA's inspector general has linked VA patient care problems to widespread mismanagement, but nonpartisan investigations by the Government Accountability Office have found that often there is no link between a person's bonus and good performance.
In his own investigation, Miller found at least 20 "preventable veteran deaths" in the VA system. The probe also determined that more than 50 veterans were seriously harmed by delays in endoscopies and other procedures. The majority of the deaths occurred in 2010 and 2011, according to his report.
Miller and his colleagues are also angry that dozens of requests for information from the VA have gone unanswered — a list that is carefully documented on the committee's Web site.
What does Obama think of the bill?
He hasn't said definitively one way or the other. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that the White House "shares Congress’s concerns about making sure that there is accountability and effectiveness at the VA, and we're working to address the problems that have surfaced. We'll look closely at the bill."
Carney said that Obama has asked Shinseki "to make sure that the VA is maximizing its use of existing authorities to ensure accountability so that all the tools already available under the law to the VA to hold people accountable are being used even as we assess this bill."
Anyone else have issues with this bill?
Yes. The Senior Executives Association, which represents members of the Senior Executive Service, has raised concerns about the legislation. As The Federal Eye's Josh Hicks wrote this week, the group is worried that the bill would violate the due process rights of VA employees; needlessly inject partisan politics into an otherwise nonpartisan workforce; and run the risk of having a VA secretary react too quickly and fire someone "to dampen the ensuing firestorm."
So what is the Senior Executive Service?
Established during the Carter administration, the SES comprises roughly 7,000 senior career federal employees across the federal government. They're the top career managers who stay behind as political appointees come and go every few years. To use an Army comparison, if secretaries and assistant secretaries are like the generals and lieutenant generals, then SES employees are more like brigadier generals, majors and captains.
Who's sponsoring the bill?
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) is the lead author and sponsor. At last check, the bill has 150 co-sponsors, including five Democrats. Among them is Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), who became the first Democratic lawmaker Wednesday to call for Shinseki's resignation.
Other Democrats are expected to support the bill, but many of them reluctantly, in part because the bill was never formally approved by the Veterans Committee. Republicans only held a subcommittee hearing on the measure in March.
And does it have any chance of passage in the Senate?
That remains unclear. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has introduced a version of the bill and the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee is reviewing the proposal. Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) hasn't said whether he would support bringing the bill up for a vote.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly counted the number of Democratic co-sponsors.