The notably unproductive House wants to cut the pay of top Veterans Affairs officials if the department doesn’t significantly reduce its disability claims backlog by next year.
Legislation approved by the House would slice 25 percent from the pay of the agency’s senior political leadership if a goal is not met. The portion of disability claims 125 days old could not exceed 40 percent by July 1 next year. As of last Saturday, 65 percent of the claims were more than 125 days old, according to VA.
Wages — from the department’s secretary through the assistant secretaries — would be cut for a three-month period from July 1 through Sept. 30, 2014.
“The pace with which the VA is examining claims is unacceptable and must be fixed,” Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), the sponsor of the provision, said in a statement. “When a soldier puts his life on the line for this country, he shouldn’t be left waiting a year for help when he gets home. . . . If the leadership at the VA cannot reduce the backlog, they should see their pay cut.”
The department already has stopped giving bonuses to some of its senior executives.
“Based on VBA’s [the Veterans Benefits Administration] organizational performance goals, senior executives will not receive performance awards for FY 2012,” said Victoria Dillon, acting press secretary. “Instead, the funds will be reinvested to accelerate elimination of the backlog.”
Across the agency, bonuses dropped from $3.3 million in 2009 to $2.3 million in 2012.
Despite Kingston’s contention, there has been progress on the backlog.
“Today, VA has the lowest total claims inventory since August 2011,” Secretary Eric K. Shinseki told a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Louisville on Tuesday. “Barring any changes in entitlements, this number will continue to decline, and VA remains committed to eliminating the backlog in disability claims in 2015.”
During the past three months, “the backlog has dropped from 591,000 to 515,000,” he said. “Claims over two years old have dropped from over 42,000 to about 1,700.”
If that’s not enough for Kingston, fair enough. But perhaps his pay cut solution also should apply to Congress, particularly the House and especially the Republicans who control that chamber.
Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, criticized the House bill as politically motivated and said it ignored progress that the VA is making in reducing the backlog.
At a Wednesday afternoon news briefing on Capitol Hill, Sanders jokingly suggested that House members instead consider docking their own pay based on the legislation they pass. “Those guys would end up owing money,” he said.
But it’s no joke.
Citing a report by Brookings and the American Enterprise Institute, my colleague Chris Cillizza wrote last week that “the 112th Congress (2011-2013) got less done than any Congress in more than six decades.”
A recent Huffington Post headline also tells the story: “113th Congress on Pace to be Least Productive in Modern History.” The article, updated on July 11, said that “the current Congress has had just 15 bills signed into law so far, the fewest in recent history.”
That has real ramifications for the government and its staffers, but apparently it’s fine with the top man in the House, Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “[W] e should not be judged on how many new laws we create,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “We ought to be judged on how many laws that we repeal.”
Republicans are even refusing to cooperate on a new budget, which directly affects federal agencies, their workplaces and employees. The Senate and the House have approved separate spending plans, but Republicans refuse to agree to a conference committee that would work out differences in the bills.
“We have called upon the speaker of the House to appoint conferees to negotiate on the budget,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told his colleagues Tuesday. “He has refused.”
Michael Steel, a spokesman for Boehner, unconvincingly placed the blame for no House conferees on Senate Democrats. The usual practice, he said, is for “the House and Senate Budget committee leaders to come to an agreement on a framework before formally appointing conferees. . . . It is difficult, obviously, to reach such an agreement when the Senate Democrats’ budget never, ever balances.”
Federal employees, more than the average citizen, know from experience that is more than just another political gambit. No budget means uncertainty — uncertainty for employees and uncertainty for their ability to serve the public.
“By not going to budget conference — let’s be clear,” Van Hollen said. Republicans “want to take us right up to the cliff of government shutdown in the beginning of October, next fiscal year. They’re talking about once again rolling the dice and playing a game of chicken as to whether or not the United States pays its bills on time.
“That is no way for the federal government to conduct itself.”
Steve Vogel contributed to this report.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.