House Panel Takes On Veterans Affairs Over Bonuses

Gordon H. Mansfield, deputy secretary of the VA, said the agency executives who got bonuses are
Gordon H. Mansfield, deputy secretary of the VA, said the agency executives who got bonuses are "good, honest, hardworking leaders." (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)
By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, June 13, 2007

It's been a bonus brouhaha for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

After the agency was faulted last month for awarding $3.8 million in bonuses in fiscal 2006, the VA's deputy secretary explained yesterday that the money went to seasoned federal executives who excel at running the department's health-care, benefits and cemetery programs.

"These are good, honest, hardworking leaders," Gordon H. Mansfield, the deputy secretary, testified at a hearing held by the House Veterans' Affairs oversight subcommittee.

But Mansfield acknowledged there was room for improving how bonuses are handled. He said the VA would take another look at whether bonuses are properly matched to individual and organizational performance and would follow suggestions by the Office of Personnel Management to improve its procedures.

The VA is under pressure from Congress to clear a backlog of disability cases while ramping up to care for thousands of injured veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Members of Congress lashed out at the VA last month after learning that the department paid the highest average bonuses among Cabinet agencies and that some senior executives got bonuses of $33,000 each.

"When the backlog of claims has been increasing for the past few years, one would not expect the seniormost officials of the Veterans Benefits Administration to receive the maximum bonus," said Rep. Harry E. Mitchell (D-Ariz.), the subcommittee chairman.

"When the VA is forced to return to Congress for additional money, which happened twice in 2006, because the budget submitted to Congress was inadequate and the VA failed to keep Congress informed, one would not expect the seniormost officials of VA responsible for the budget to receive the maximum bonus," Mitchell added.

"This is not a question of blame; it is a question of responsibility."

Subcommittee members suggested that the VA might need to tighten its review of bonuses, which went to 87 percent of senior executives, and consider bringing in outside experts to shore up the independence of the boards that review the job performance of VA executives.

Mansfield, who said he makes recommendations to VA Secretary Jim Nicholson on bonuses, noted that the department's inspector general and medical inspectors often review bonus recommendations to avoid the embarrassment of a cash payout going to a person who is under investigation or runs a program that gets poor marks from internal auditors.

While there may be some problems in how bonuses are handled at the VA, the department will try to "make it better," Mansfield said. "I don't think it is a dysfunctional system."

2008 Pay Raise on Track

The federal employee pay raise keeps chugging along.

A proposed 3.5 percent raise, effective next year, cleared the House Appropriations Committee on Monday. The salary increase is the same as the congressional recommendation for the military. The White House recommended 3 percent for the civil service and the military.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), a longtime advocate of "pay parity" raises, which are the same for civilians and the military, said he had worked with the committee's leaders to ensure that the proposed raise was in the spending bill. In past years, Hoyer has offered a pay amendment to the committee's bill. This year was the first in which pay parity was written in the original version of the bill, reflecting a priority of House Democrats, he said.

"I am proud, after 12 years of leading the defense in the House for civilian employees, to go on the offense this year," Hoyer said.

The fiscal 2008 financial services and general government bill also includes $26.4 million for a new computerized records system that should speed up the processing of federal retirement claims at the Office of Personnel Management, Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) said. The current system relies on paper files.

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