Veteran Community Backs New Accountability Bill, But This Union Of Govt Employees Stands In The Way

Jonah Bennett | Contributor

Congress’ latest attempt to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs by expanding firing authority to include all employees has been met with stringent opposition from the American Federation of Government Employees.

Last year, Congress passed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act. This piece of legislation allowed Robert McDonald, the secretary of the VA, to fire senior executives in the department. Critics noted that the act neglected a very large portion of the employee population also engaged in questionable activities.

Others have pointed out that the legislation doesn’t have much to show for itself. Since it was passed, McDonald has only fired two senior executives. Those firings came within the last couple of months, which is over a year after President Barack Obama signed the legislation. None of the firings were in connection with manipulated waitlists. Two executives at the Phoenix VA, the branch which kicked off the scandal resulting in increased scrutiny of the department, are still on paid leave.

Firing regular employees is also incredibly difficult. In another recent example, it took more than a year to fire a VA employee in Alabama who brought a veteran suffering from drug addiction to a crack house and left him for the night. Legislators have continually expressed frustration in hearings that the VA has refused to exercise any measure of internal accountability for inexcusable mistakes and problematic behavior.

A new House bill, HR 1994, aims to expand firing authority to all VA employees. Veterans’ advocates like the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, have backed the VA Accountability Act of 2015. The bill would allow McDonald to remove employees for performance or misconduct.

Employees would be permitted to file a claim with the Merit Systems Protection Board within seven days, which then would need to provide a decision in 45 days.

When testifying before the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on the Senate version of the bill, Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America, stated that “all VA workers will retain the same federal protections afforded other government workers. S.1082 simply condenses the appeal and adjudication period for fired workers—placing them on unpaid administrative leave in the process. VA workers retain full protections and full appeal rights; they just won’t be sitting on paid administrative leave for months and years.”

But a union representing federal government workers stands in the way. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) argues that the move would endanger its employees.

Beth Moten, legislative and political director for AFGE, asked legislators in a letter to oppose the legislation, saying House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman Jeff Miller misrepresented the purpose of HR 1994. According to Moten, the bill removes fundamental due process rights from employees, including the small subset of whistleblowers.

But Shaun Rieley, outreach and research analyst at Concerned Veterans for America, thinks the fears over decreased protections for whistleblowers are over-hyped.

“The legislation plainly states that the Secretary cannot use this new power against whistleblowers who have an active case with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC),” Rieley told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

While Moten does take note of this provision in the letter, she thinks the legislation will create a perverse incentive and overwhelm OSC with bogus claims from employees who are only declaring whistleblower status to avoid termination.

“This is unlikely, not least because it’s not exactly true that the employees will be “at will” — they still must be fired for cause, and the burden of proof remains the same under the new law,” Rieley added.  “The difference is that if the Secretary determines that the employee needs to be terminated, and the OSC approves, the employee can be immediately relieved, instead of the red-tape that currently keeps bad employees from simply being shifted to another assignment, or being placed on taxpayer-paid leave for months.”

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