The latest in a series of moves against top civil servants in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) would eliminate key employment protections.
In the name of serving veterans and increasing employee accountability, Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Jeff Miller say the VA secretary should be able to fire or demote members of the Senior Executive Service (SES) without appeal rights.
The move against civil service protections comes as the House approved another dig at VA senior executives. Earlier this month it singled them out by banning their performance awards through fiscal year 2018. Miller’s office also created a “VA Accountability Watch” Web site that amounts to a public flogging of VA staffers. It lists the names, and in some cases the work locations, of employees who received performance awards despite, the site says, inspector general reports linking “many VA patient care problems to widespread mismanagement within VA facilities.”
Now, Miller and Rubio, Florida Republicans, have introduced legislation that would fundamentally change the nature of the federal civil service for those employees and undermine its legitimacy government-wide.
In the process, Veterans Affairs and the people it serves could suffer if top executives decide to take their talents to other agencies.
No doubt VA has significant problems — the disability claims backlog and issues of preventable death among them — and needs serious work.
But is taking away the rights of employees the way to do it?
Those rights are in place to protect federal employees from the whims of partisan and crony politics. The civil service system is grounded on merit-based hiring, instead of the patronage operation that ran the government until the Pendleton Act of 1883. Employees can be disciplined, demoted and fired, but they can appeal unfair proceedings. The Merit Systems Protection Board, among other things, decides employee appeals against “prohibited personnel actions,” including discrimination based on race, sex and political affiliation.
For Rubio, these civil service protections for VA senior executives are obstacles to eliminate.
“This bill gets rid of these hurdles,” says a statement from his office, “in order to give the VA secretary authorities similar to those members of Congress have to fire employees from their staffs.”
But congressional staffers are clearly and overtly political people, pushing the partisan agendas of their politician bosses. The civil service is meant to provide just the opposite — a nonpartisan crew of workers that carries out the business of government no matter which party is in control. These civil servants follow policies that are set by elected politicians but administered without political favoritism.
“This is a terrible precedent that threatens to politicize the career senior leadership of the government,” said a Senior Executives Association statement. “With fear of retribution by an agency head, the career SES could well become a politicized corps that bends with the political winds, rather than serving the American people free from political influence.”
Miller, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, casts the legislation, called the VA Management Accountability Act, as a way “to give the VA secretary the authority he needs to fix things.”
But in a letter to Miller, VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said he already “has sufficient authority to take swift action to hold employees and executives accountable for performance.”
VA’s performance management, however, also is an issue for a ranking Democrat. Rep. Michael H. Michaud (Maine), the top Democrat on the committee, has previously said “VA’s performance management system is not rooted strongly enough in the outcomes for veterans. . . . It is my sense that VA’s current leadership performance management system focuses too much on process and productivity measures, and not enough on the broader impact on America’s veterans.”
Miller and Rubio said their bill is a response to the disability benefits claims backlog and a string of preventable deaths in VA facilities. Ironically, perhaps, VA staffers are increasingly being targeted as agency problems improve.
Even critics recognize the drop in compensation claims, from a record high of 611,000 in March 2013 to around 400,000 today, according to VA figures.
“We are executing an aggressive plan to fix this decades-old problem and end the backlog in 2015,” said Victoria Dillon, a VA spokeswoman.
Veterans Affairs does not have statistics comparing its record on preventable deaths with other health-care organizations, but Dillon said the department “has established a record of safe, exceptional health care that is consistently recognized by independent reviews and organizations.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.