The House on Wednesday passed a bill amendment that would ban bonuses for senior executives with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), a co-sponsor of the proposal and a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the measure is needed because of “systematic leadership failures,” including preventable deaths at VA health centers, a backlog of longstanding disability claims and extensive delays for many of the department’s construction projects.
“This culture of anything-goes has got to stop,” Huelskamp said in a statement on Wednesday. “And the best way to stop this is to send a strong signal across the Department of Veteran Affairs that Congress means business.”
Another Republican, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), submitted a report to the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday saying VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has the necessary authority to influence performance by withholding and awarding bonuses. It said he has shown a willingness to use that leverage.
“As one example, [Shinseki] made the decision to withhold performance awards for the entire Veterans Benefits Administration Senior Executive cadre based on the failure to meet targets on reducing disability claims backlogs,” the report said.
Wednesday’s vote came on the heels of a CNN report last week claiming that a Phoenix VA hospital tried to cover up long service delays for more than 1,400 sick veterans, some of whom died while waiting for care.
President Obama said during a visit to the Philippines that he ordered an investigation of the allegations, and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has promised to hold a hearing on the matter.
The VA has pushed back against the proposed restriction on executive bonuses, saying in a statement on Wednesday that the department must “remain competitive to recruit and retain the best people” to ensure quality service.
The VA also downplayed the notion of widespread problems at the department, highlighting some of its accomplishments in recent years, including enrolling 2 million former troops into the VA health-care system, reducing veterans homelessness by 24 percent and trimming its backlog of longstanding disability claims by 44 percent.
The Senior Executives Association said it “strongly disagrees” with Wednesday’s vote. “A blanket ban on performance awards only serves to punish those senior executives who are high performing and those who may not have a direct line of responsibility for the issues being raised in Congress,” the group said in a statement.
Performance awards have become a major issue on Capitol Hill in recent weeks, particularly after an inspector general’s report revealed that the Internal Revenue Service had awarded more than $1 million in performance awards to employees with conduct problems, including tax-delinquency.
Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) introduced legislation on Tuesday that would prohibit agency heads from awarding workers whose actions warrant firing or suspension, as well as those who commit felony crimes.
The House approved the ban on VA executive bonuses as an amendment to the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Act, which also passed the House on Wednesday.
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