Senate legislation ripping due process rights for Department of Veterans Affairs employees is getting battered for being too strong and too weak at the same time.
While the bipartisan co-sponsors say the “Veterans First Act” would force greater accountability for VA staffers, a letter sent Wednesday by a dozen federal employee organizations points to ways the bill would “undermine constitutionally-guaranteed protections” and allow “the VA’s workforce to become vulnerable to undue political influence.”
The legislation was proposed by Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. The committee approved the bill with no dissent.
Most groups in the employee organization coalition don’t represent VA staffers. But those groups are worried that approval of the bill could establish a precedent undermining civil service protections across government.
Notably absent from the list is the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which is the largest representative of VA workers. Yet its members would suffer reduced time to appeal adverse personnel actions.
The letter said one provision calling for expedited procedures to fire VA senior executives, who are not unionized, “will establish an employment-at-will doctrine toward federal civil service employment, opening the door to partisan political abuse in myriad ways.”
Signing the letter were the Federal Aviation Administration Managers Association, Federal Managers Association, National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, National Association of Government Employees, National Association of Letter Carriers, National Association of Postal Supervisors, National Council of Social Security Management Associations, National Weather Service Employees Organization, Organization of Professional Employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Patent Office Professional Association, Professional Managers Association and Senior Executives Association.
AFGE President J. David Cox Sr. sent his own letter about the bill to the Senate last month and apparently got enough in return to support the measure.
While sharing the concerns of its colleagues, AFGE said it “worked diligently with Congress and the Administration to defend employees’ basic right to due process, and have achieved vast improvements to critical parts of the bill as a result. For that reason we support passage of the Senate bill.”
An article published by the conservative dailycaller.com carried the headline “Senate Caves To All Of Union’s Demands on Veterans Affairs Firing Bill.” That perspective echoes the position of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who thinks the Senate bill is not strong enough.
“The labor unions have so far gotten their way in writing the VA accountability provisions in the Senate’s VA reform bill…” Rubio complained. “The current VA bill includes too many loopholes that let bad VA employees off the hook.”
Yet the legislation would leave VA senior executives without a basic right of appeal that applies to other federal employees. That’s the ability to appeal disciplinary actions to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). Legislation sponsored two years ago by Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) severely undercut that right by sharply limiting the appeals period. Now the Senate bill would remove MSPB appeals for the department’s top civil servants.
The bill would make the VA secretary judge, jury and executioner of senior executives. Section 113 says the secretary may “reprimand or suspend, involuntarily reassign, demote, or remove” the employees. Any appeal would be limited to “an internal grievance process that the Secretary…shall establish.” Furthermore, the decision of this in-house process “shall be final and conclusive.”
This does more than slash a fundamental due process right for VA senior execs. This provision also would render the presidentially appointed MSPB powerless, totally irrelevant, in these cases.
Beyond that, the measure could damage the notion that top federal civil servants are outside of politics by making their jobs contingent on the will of the politically appointed secretary. Due process is there to protect the public, more than public employees, from a government soiled by the spoils system.
“Elimination of these protections will only increase the vulnerability of the federal workforce to manipulation by partisan politics, the political agenda of future Administrations, and personal favoritism,” the 12 groups wrote. “In turn, the government’s delivery of services to its citizens will be compromised.”