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House passes bill to give veterans in-state tuition, halt VA executive bonuses

(Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters) (Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters)

The House this week unanimously passed a bill that would expand veterans’ educational benefits and end bonuses for the senior executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs for five years.

The measure, approved on Monday, was introduced last year by Reps. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and Mike Michaud (D-Maine), who head the House Veterans Affairs Committee. It would require all schools eligible for GI Bill benefits to give veterans in-state tuition rates regardless of where those individuals have actually established residence.

The legislation would also eliminate all bonuses for VA senior executives during fiscal years 2014 through 2018, for a projected savings of $18 million over that period, according to an analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

The bill includes other provisions that would extend the VA’s work-study program through 2018 and increase the time frame for veterans to use their vocational rehabilitation benefits from 12 years to 17 years, among other measures.

Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who led the House floor debate on the legislation, said Wednesday that the measure gives lawmakers a chance to help veterans transition out of their military lives. “Too often, our veterans have difficulty reintegrating back in civilian life, and Congress should be doing all that it can to make things easier for our heroes,” he said in a statement.

The VA has taken fire for paying large bonuses to senior officials despite a longstanding backlog of disability claims, and a federal watchdog report that said the department awarded bonuses to most of its doctors and dentists despite lacking reasonable assurances that the extra pay was linked to performance.

A CBS report last year revealed that the VA awarded $63,000 in performance pay to one of its regional directors shortly after a probe determined that his medical centers had failed to prevent an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease.

The Senior Executives Association has warned that cutting bonuses for VA’s top leaders could cause those employees to seek work in the private sector or with other agencies, where they can potentially earn more money. The group’s president, Carol Bonosaro, said in letter to Miller and Michaud last year that the federal government’s senior executives are by and large hard-working and effective managers who deserve their bonuses.

“To the extent that there are actual instances of senior executives engaging in misconduct or sub-par performance and still receiving awards, it is the rare exception rather than the norm,” Bonosaro said, adding that agencies can take action against those who abuse their positions or fail to meet expectations.

On Wednesday, the association released a statement saying the hold on bonuses “sends a negative message to VA senior executives that their work is not valued and that the pay-for-performance system is broken; further, it ties the hands of VA leadership, which would be severely limited in its ability to recognize stellar performance.”

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks@washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye, The Fed Page and Post Politics for more federal news. E-mail federalworker@washpost.com with news tips and other suggestions.

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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