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Mass punishment: House bill would ban bonuses for all VA senior executives


The Department of Veterans Affairs has its share of problems, perhaps more. But is a mass whipping of top civil servants the way to solve them?

The House thinks so.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about federal government and workplace issues that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. Davidson previously was an assistant city editor at The Washington Post and a Washington and foreign correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, where he covered federal agencies and political campaigns. View Archive

With a voice vote, it approved Republican-sponsored legislation Wednesday that would punish all members of the Senior Executive Service (SES) in the department. The legislation, which faces a tougher time in the Senate, would ban bonuses for the executives. The House action echoed similar legislation it approved in February.

“Paying bonuses to senior executives of an organization with an abysmal performance record is ridiculous,” Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Pa.), sponsor of the bill, told his colleagues.

Paying bonuses to an individual with abysmal performance is ridiculous. But so is punishing everyone in the class for the sins of the guilty.

A more sensible bipartisan approach was advanced Tuesday by Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.). Their legislation would block bonuses for individual federal workers who have broken the law, violated agency policy or are tax delinquents.

That bill would not impose mass punishment because an agency performed poorly. And it must be noted that the notion the VA as a whole performs abysmally is in dispute.

Rothfus and others have a right to be outraged at reports of preventable deaths, benefit backlogs and other issues the VA can’t seem to shake. Lawmakers would be derelict if they did not demand accountability.

Yet accountability should work both ways. It means recognizing the good and the bad.

VA officials point to a survey by the American Customer Satisfaction Index that gives good grades to VA hospitals for patient care. That does not mean that every VA employee is a saint, just like the problems don’t mean every staffer is a sinner.

“It does not make sense to punish . . . with a broad brush, to punish every executive at the VA,” Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said by phone. “Overall, what veterans in this country are telling me is that the VA provides good, quality health care to the men and women of this country who defend us.”

The Senior Executives Association said the bill is “unnecessary and does nothing to address the critical issues” facing the department. “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.”

One reason the bill is unnecessary is the power the VA secretary, Eric K. Shinseki, already has. Not only does he have it, Shinseki has used it, as noted in a report submitted by another Republican, Rep. John Abney Culberson (Texas), chairman of the House Appropriations veterans affairs subcommittee.

“Most importantly, the Secretary has demonstrated his willingness to use the bonus system as a way to reward and penalize staff based on performance,” Culberson’s report notes.

Culberson pointed to VA’s decision last year to withhold bonuses from senior executives in the Veterans Benefits Administration after it didn’t meet backlog reduction targets.

Mass punishment by the boss is problematic, too. But at least it can be better targeted by people closer to the situation.

The VA’s response to the House vote this week was muted, pointing out departmental successes and saying: “VA must remain competitive to recruit and retain the best people in order to continue our progress.”

The legislation bill would make it more difficult to do that.

This isn’t the first time VA senior executives have been targeted. The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee has a Web page devoted to outing department executives who have received bonuses.

Sen. Marco Rubio, who might run to be the boss of all federal employees, and Rep. Jeff Miller, both Florida Republicans, have sponsored legislation that would strip VA senior executives of certain civil service rights. Rubio and Miller, chairman of the House committee, want the VA secretary to have the power to fire senior executives without allowing them the current appeal procedures.

“This bill gets rid of these hurdles,” said a statement from Rubio’s office, “in order to give the VA secretary authorities similar to those members of Congress have to fire employees from their staffs.”

He seems not to understand that the civil service is designed to protect federal employees from the political whims of the people in power.

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at

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