Democrats, often strong backers of feds, vote to strip some VA staff of civil-service rights

Columnist

Congress is advancing legislation that has pulled traditional allies apart, leaving a group of feds without the support they thought they had.

The House, by a strong bipartisan vote of 390 to 33, passed a bill that would allow one set of workers — Senior Executive Service members in the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs — to be treated differently than most feds facing performance allegations.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

Under the bill, the VA secretary could fire top civil servants without bothering to follow certain due process rights available to employees throughout the government. Generally, federal employees can appeal employment actions to the Merit Systems Protection Board or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Those procedures could be ignored if the legislation approved Wednesday becomes law.

Although the bill could mean a hasty exit for some employees, the real message of the strong Democratic support is that Congress will not tolerate shoddy treatment of veterans. It’s a clear message to the VA’s management to get its shop in order and a stark warning to individual employees whose actions have damaged the department’s reputation. Those actions now have given cover to Democratic stalwarts of federal employees to chuck civil-service protections if that’s what’s necessary to get the VA back on track.

One of those stalwarts, Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), wrestled with his decision to vote for the bill. He did, he said, because when it comes to choosing veterans or the civil-service rights of VA senior executives in the case, “I had to side with my veterans.”

He has been “deeply offended” by the scandal and considers the vote “a shot across the bow” of management.

“Clean up your act,” he said.

If the VA’s leadership and top staffers are losing the backing of such people as Connolly, tough days are ahead.

The long waits for veterans to receive services are bad enough, but it is the coverup — as it always is — that gets people in trouble. And the allegations of coverups have spread like a nasty fungus among VA facilities. The allegations are that some VA employees have been keeping two sets of records to hide service delays. The situation became inflamed with reports of about 40 people dying while awaiting help in Phoenix, although there is no proof so far of that.

“[I]f these allegations prove to be true, it is dishonorable, it is disgraceful, and I will not tolerate it — period,” President Obama said. “I assure you: If there is misconduct, it will be punished.”

Punishment, yes. But it should be smart and part of a corrective strategy.

That strategy should examine not only misdeeds by individuals, but also systemic problems, such as understaffing, which could make productivity goals unrealistic.

This bill could drive skilled senior executives, who are not connected to the scandal, away from a department that needs their talents the most. Why would anyone want to work for an agency that provides employees with less protection against politically motivated reprisals, which is the reason for civil-service protections, than another agency down the street?

This deplorable scandal has engulfed VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and provided a big push for legislation that would set a bad precedent. The measure, sponsored by House Veteran Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), coasted to victory with 162 yeas from Democrats. That level of Democratic support changes the image of the bill. No longer is it just another punitive piece of Republican legislation aimed at feds. If an overwhelming number of Democrats in the House voted for it, maybe enough of them in the Senate will, too.

“I think what the House has done is not unreasonable, as far as I understand,” said Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader.

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) told Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), sponsor of that chamber’s version of the bill, “your legislation has many important provisions which I happen to agree with. There are some that I think need work on.”

He worries about a new administration taking office and being able to fire administrators wholesale “without their ability to defend themselves.” Sanders promised to hold a hearing in early June.

Rubio wanted a quick vote.

“People at the VA need to be held accountable,” he said after the House vote. “And, yes, people should be fired for such gross incompetence and negligence — something my VA reform bill with Congressman Jeff Miller would do.”

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) agrees that if allegations against VA employees are true, “heads ought to roll. Period.”

But the legislation, he added, “opens the door to a slippery slope of undoing the careful civil-service protections that have been in place for decades.

“This is about due process. . . . The test of a society is whether, at times of stress, it can follow due process and the law. This bill does not provide for that. Protections that have been put in place for decades to ensure politically appointed managers cannot fire nonpolitical senior executives in federal service without proper cause.”

If those protections wilt under the heat of this VA scandal, which agency is next?

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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