House to vote on bill making it easier to fire VA senior execs

Thursday - 4/3/2014, 5:19pm EDT

(Updated: 9:30 a.m. April 4 to include comments from VA)

The House is heading for a vote on a bill making it easier for the Veterans Affairs secretary to fire or demote senior career executives at the department.

"If you're presiding over a bureaucracy that's failing our veterans, you shouldn't be receiving bonuses," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said at a Capitol Hill briefing Thursday. "You should be gone. It's time time to clean up this mess to bring real accountability" to the VA.

However, the department and a group representing federal senior executives say the measure would eliminate key civil-service protections for VA employees and could put the agency at a disadvantage when it comes to recruiting and retaining them.

The VA Management Accountability Act allows the VA secretary to remove or demote members of the Senior Executive Service (SES) based on their performance.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the department isn't doing to enough to terminate managers who are performing poorly or who have failed in their jobs. He cited a once-substantial backlog in the department's disability claims systems and a series of recent preventable deaths — by his count 31 — at VA medical centers across the country. In many cases, executives at those facilities still earned bonuses, he said.

"What we're trying to do with this piece of legislation is very simple," Miller said at the briefing. "It's to give the secretary the tools that he needs in order to make very important decisions. ... We cannot continue to promote people who have not done their job and give them bonuses even when there have been preventable deaths at their facilities."

Current law already allows SES members to be removed from service for a host of reasons, including misconduct, malfeasance and neglect of duty, although employees are entitled to appeal rights.

In fact, about 6,000 employees in the past two years have been removed from the agency because of poor performance or misconduct, according to the VA.

"VA must remain competitive to recruit and retain the best people in order to continue our progress," VA Deputy Press Secretary Victoria Dillon said in a statement provided to Federal News Radio. Changes that would single out VA employees for punishment by removing existing federal civil service rules not only put VA at a competitive disadvantage, but can ultimately harm VA's ability to best serve veterans."

Accountability or sound-bite?

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who introduced the Senate version of the bill, said the majority of VA employees are doing good work.

"But like any organization, there's going to be breakdowns," he said "And when there are, people need to be held accountable, especially at the senior management level. The people we entrust to run this agency should have the power to fire and discipline those who have let down the men and women who have served us in uniform."

The legislation is supported by the American Legion and the Concerned Veterans of America.

But the group that represents the nearly 8,000 members of the SES, the federal government's cadre of senior leaders, says the bill would politicize VA management.

"SEA strongly believes that problem employees should be held accountable and supports real efforts to identify policies that strengthen employee accountability systems across government," SEA President Carol Bonosaro said in a statement. "This legislation does not achieve the goal of accountability and instead is a quick fix sound-bite that does not address the very real issues of backlogs and access to care."

There's no word yet on when exactly the House will vote on the legislation. In February, the House approved another Miller-sponsored bill prohibiting performance awards for SES members at VA for the next five years.

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