The Senate cleared a path Tuesday evening for the Department of Veterans Affairs to take swift action to fire and discipline problem employees, overhauling long-guaranteed job protections that Republicans would like to change across the federal workforce.
Following a voice vote — and action in the House earlier this year — a bipartisan bill is expected to arrive quickly on the desk of President Trump, who pledged to bring accountability to VA, the second-largest federal agency. Trump and his GOP allies on Capitol Hill have long criticized what they call a culture of incompetence and misconduct at VA and other agencies in which poor performers and rule-breaking employees rarely are punished.
Backed by large veterans service organizations, the change is one of the first legislative victories under Republican control of Congress and the White House. The threat of eroding worker protections has met with fierce opposition from federal employees, the unions that represent them and Democratic lawmakers. But conservatives consider VA — and the politically valuable constituency it serves — a template for a broader shake-up of federal job protections and benefits.
Similar legislation had cleared the House several times in recent years but stalled in the Senate, resisted by Democrats. But it gained new momentum this spring with a bipartisan agreement in the closely divided Senate, where more than a dozen Democrats are considered politically vulnerable after Trump’s election.
“This is not a punitive measure,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the bill’s Senate sponsor, said on the floor before the vote. “The VA must be properly managed. . . . It has become clear that [it] is often unwilling or unable to hold individuals accountable for their actions or misdeeds.”
Tuesday’s vote comes as VA struggles to regain its footing three years after a scandal over falsified records for medical appointments, an embarrassing episode for President Barack Obama that forced the removal of his VA secretary.
Delays had resulted in the deaths of dozens of sick veterans as they waited to see doctors. But just a handful of managers and rank-and-file employees were let go after they fudged appointment records to look as though they were meeting the agency’s goals for acceptable wait times.
The new Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act would affect 340,000 VA employees, about a sixth of the federal workforce. It would lower the standard of evidence for managers to pursue discipline or termination for performance or misconduct. Senior executives would have 21 days to fight action against them through an internal appeal board.
VA would have 15 days to take action against rank-and-file employees once managers build a case, and appeals by employees to their union or the government-wide panel on personnel decisions would need to be completed within 180 days. Under the current system, appeals and agency action can drag on for years.
Employees would not be paid while they appeal, as they are now. And those who lose their cases would have to pay back the government for any bonuses and relocation expenses.
The bill also boosts protections for whistleblowers to help ensure they are not retaliated against for reporting wrongdoing.
The legislation tones down language that cleared the House in March largely on party lines. But while the co-sponsors in the Senate, Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and the panel’s top Democrat, Jon Tester (Mont.), agreed to changes that brought back some union protections, it still represents a watershed for civil service protections.
While Tester said the bill does not open the door to other changes to civil service protections, congressional Republicans see Trump’s election as an opportunity to enact long-pursued changes across the government. Those include ending automatic raises, greenlighting the firing of poor performers across government, banning union business on government time and pension reductions.
Democrats were emphatic that VA will continue to protect employees’ rights to union representation and to appeal action the agency takes against them.
“This bill does not trample on workers’ rights,” Tester said. “It maintains the bargaining rights of union workers. It does not gut due-process protections.”
But the union, which represents more than 230,000 VA workers, expressed concern that good employees could be wrongly targeted.
“We just want to make sure that the overwhelming majority of excellent VA employees don’t get caught up in the mix,” J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in a statement. “Remember, it wasn’t the frontline employees we represent who ordered secret waitlists.”
The Senior Executives Association, which represents about 6,000 top career employees in the government, was more critical, calling the legislation’s “exclusive focus on punitive accountability measures” unfair and a return to the patronage spoils system that dominated the federal workforce until the 1880s.
VA Secretary David Shulkin has said that problem employees represent a small minority. But bad apples who linger on the payroll, either at work or getting paid at home, are hurting morale and recruitment, he contends.
The political advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America, part of a network of politically active nonprofit groups backed by the industrialist Koch brothers and other wealthy conservative donors, pushed hardest for change. In recent months, CVA spent more than $100,000 targeting red-state Democrats and moderate Republicans in digital ads, phone calls and emails in 18 states, officials said.