Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) officials under Secretary David Shulkin are favoring people who have previously been laid off from the government, or are about to be, to fill a top congressional relations job in the sprawling agency.
The job ad for a VA executive to oversee eight congressional liaison officials describes the open position as “located in the [Veterans Health Administration] Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs in Washington, D.C,” and adds that “you will serve as the principal advisor to the Director, and serve as a link between the VHA, the General Counsel, Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs, and other VA offices.”
But, in bold and underlined text, the ad makes clear that “this announcement is open to CTAP eligible employees only,” referring to the Career Transition Assistance Program, which finds ways to keep “surplus” or “displaced” federal workers on the government payroll.
President Donald Trump repeatedly vowed during the 2016 campaign to say “you’re fired” to current VA employees, who he said are part of a culture of incompetency. But Trump is now daily learning how career federal bureaucrats protect each others’ jobs, especially at VA.
Limiting hiring to CTAP precludes hiring experienced individuals from congressional offices or other relevant backgrounds, as well as veterans who haven’t worked in the civilian government, while favoring longtime bureaucrats.
The federal government’s process for budget-induced layoffs — known in official parlance as “Reductions-In-Force (RIF)” — targets those with the least tenure and the lowest performance ratings.
To be re-hired under CTAP, candidates must have had a “fully successful” performance rating–a three on a five-point scale–a bar that is so low that 99 percent of employees clear it, according to the Government Accountability Office.
The liaison job pays $112,000 to $146,000 per year, meaning some of the most senior Capitol Hill staff with relevant skills and years of expertise would likely be attracted to the job — if they could apply.
CTAP is one cog in a machine that favors keeping the same employees in government jobs for life, even as major scandals come and go and leaders promise sweeping cultural change, as VA’s have.
Missouri Democratic Rep. Russ Carnahan has described the VA’s tendency to consider only internal candidates for culture-shaping jobs as “perpetuating people that are in the system, where you don’t have openings for new talent to get in.”
Lobbying experts and congressional staff consider the congressional liaison job as vital to congressional oversight, which may be why many such officials elsewhere in the executive branch are former Capitol Hill staffers. Working on the Hill is virtually a prerequisite for understanding the byzantine ways of Congress.
“For a congressional liaison to be effective, he or she must possess specialized knowledge of what makes Congress tick and how best to interact with congressional staff and members. Typically organizations find the most effective strategy for filling such a job is to look for someone who has spent time working in or around the Congress in the past,” Jock Friedly, who runs Legistorm, a website that tracks the worlds of lobbying and congressional staff, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
Tiffany Haverly, press secretary for the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, told TheDCNF “we expect timely and accurate responses to the committee’s requests for information. The department’s hiring effort should be driven by that expectation.” The panel continually demands data, documents and information from VA on a daily basis, but has often been kept waiting for months, blocking important investigations.
Duties in the job ad include “researching factual information, verifying it through discussion with program specialists … monitoring and responding to congressional hearing inquiries and deliverables” … “drafting and composing congressional testimony” and “participating in the development of and providing technical assistance for proposed health care legislation.”
The VA did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The VA has agreed to a master contract with the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) that requires it to give preference to current workers before advertising open positions to outsiders, a concession that obligates agency managers to shuffle the existing VA workforce around rather than getting rid of incompetents and replacing them with new blood.
The contract dictates that “prior to considering candidates from outside the bargaining unit, the department agrees to first consider internal candidates for selection … in all cases … first and full consideration shall be given to any best qualified candidates within the facility.”
Trump said during the campaign that he would “fire everybody” in VA, which he called “probably the most incompetently run agency in the United States.”
But, as TheDCNF’s Investigative Group reported Monday, the federal government is actually paying to hire defense lawyers for managers who have been fired for misconduct.
The lawyers file appeals to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) and defend managers against criminal charges, at taxpayer expense. That law was pushed through by lobbyists with the same law firm that is defending some of the VA’s most notoriously corrupt managers, including convicted felon Sharon Helman.
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