The House voted Wednesday to cut workplace protections for Department of Veterans Affairs employees and extend their probationary period, making it easier to fire new staffers.
The “VA Accountability Act of 2015” was approved with a 256 – 170 vote, largely, though not strictly, along party lines, despite a White House veto threat.
Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), sponsor of the legislation, cast it as a measure to empower the department secretary “by allowing him or her to remove or demote any employee for poor performance or misconduct.”
He said “the presence of poor performers and misconduct ranging from unethical practices to outright criminal behavior can spread like a cancer through a workforce.”
In a statement the day before the vote, the White House said the legislation would create “a disparity in the treatment of one group of career civil servants. The centerpiece of the bill is a provision that allows a VA employee to be removed from Federal service or demoted without the opportunity to appeal that decision to the full Merit Systems Protection Board” (MSPB), as most other federal workers can.
Miller, however, repeatedly noted during debate on the bill that President Obama and Democrats did not oppose a similar measure last year aimed only at VA senior executives.
That point was not lost on Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association.
“We are amazed that this bill, which mirrors last year’s Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, is only now causing alarm within the administration,” Bonosaro said. “In fact, the 2014 act is a more draconian version of HR 1994 [the number of the bill approved Wednesday], yet the administration had no issue then with whether the new legal removal authority and process affected the due process rights of career senior executives, who are not in any bargaining unit and therefore are not represented by unions.”
Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, also suggested union influence was the reason for Democratic opposition to the current measure. Federal labor leaders were relatively quiet last year when Congress and the White House agreed to cut the rights of the VA senior executives.
The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents most VA workers, fought Miller’s current bill, saying under it “every VA employee would become, in essence, an at-will employee with no effective due process rights.”
Last year’s measure actually was harsher for senior executives by allowing an MSPB administrative judge appeal process of only 21 days, less than half the 45 days allowed the majority of VA staffers under the current House-approved legislation.
“The voice of the unions should not be heard over the voice of our veterans,” Miller said. “We need to continue to push for the same change we pushed for last year; now is not the time to change our belief in the need for greater accountability within VA.”
The White House said the bill would be counterproductive by making “conditions of employment in VA significantly less attractive than in other Federal agencies or in the private sector, and as a result, would discourage outstanding VA employees from remaining in VA and dramatically impair VA’s ability to recruit top talent, including veterans.”