House bill would make it easier to fire senior execs at VA

Wednesday - 2/12/2014, 1:22pm EST

A new bill introduced this week by the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee would make it easier for the VA secretary to fire or demote career executives at the department.

The VA Management Accountability Act would give VA Secretary Eric Shinseki broad authority to remove Senior Executives Service (SES) members "if the secretary determines the performance of the individual warrants such removal," according to the bill. In addition to outright removal, the bill would allow the VA secretary to bump SES members down to the General Schedule at any grade level the secretary deems appropriate according to the bill.

"This legislation would give VA leaders a tool to address a problem that continues to get worse by the day," Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), the bill's co-sponsor said in a statement. "VA's widespread and systemic lack of accountability is exacerbating all of its most pressing problems, including the department's stubborn disability benefits backlog and a mounting toll of at least 31 recent preventable veteran deaths at VA medical centers across the country."

Miller's office contends that "considerable amounts of red tape," including often lengthy appeal rights have stymied efforts to remove SES members from federal service.

In fact, the committee's website hosts a "VA Accountability Watch" page, which lists examples of VA executives purportedly collecting large bonuses despite poor performance. One VA executive collected a hefty bonus despite overseeing management failures that led to a deadly outbreak of Legionnaire's Disease at a Pittsburgh VA facility, according to the site.

"With all the problems VA hospitals and regional offices have recently had and new issues continually arising, we need to give the VA secretary the authority he needs to fix things," Miller said. "That's what my bill would do."

Senior exec group says bill would politicize federal workforce

The Senior Executives Association, which represents the approximately 7,100 career SES employees governmentwide, however, criticized Miller's legislation.

"Not only is this bill a solution in search of a problem, it is unfair and does not further the goal that we all share to ensure the highest quality care for our nation's veterans," SEA President Carol Bonosaro said in a statement.

Under current law, career SES employees can be removed from service for "misconduct, neglect of duty, malfeasance," or failing to accept a directed reassignment. Agencies must provide 30 days' notice of a proposed removal, and the employee has the right to reply and can appeal the decision to the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Miller's bill would likely create undue political influence in the federal workforce, SEA contends, by allowing the agency head to fire SES members with no due process rights.

"SEA is concerned that this bill would allow Senior Executives to be subjected to a trial by media that pressures political appointees to remove them," SEA's statement read. "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."

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