President-elect Donald Trump is considering a military flag officer to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), but a career military person would likely lack experience dealing with the civil service rules that have been the department’s primary barrier to ending scandals.
Trump has said that he’s taken longer to fill that department’s top slot because its life-or-death challenges and long-running scandals make it so important. But now there are only four Cabinet posts left to be chosen, and there is pressure to use the slot to shape a larger image of the administration.
For one, the selection of top military officers for Cabinet positions has become somewhat of a theme in the Trump administration, and one that may continue. Such officers have been tapped for the National Security Administration and the departments of defense and homeland security.
Fox News reported Monday that Ret. U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen was meeting with Trump about potentially being offered the role.
The emerging Cabinet has been criticized for not having enough racial and gender diversity, leading to rumors around the transition of pressure to use the VA slot as a way to add that to the inner circle. At the VA, that has taken the form of floating Michelle Howard, a black woman and Navy officer, for the VA role.
“VA is the worst bureaucracy– this is not the place to pull from the optics bank,” one operative close to the campaign and transition team said.
Despite its seeming connection to military life, the VA has 360,000 employees — more than almost any other agency — and most are unionized, career civil servants.
A background like Allen’s would provide little experience in working to provide dramatic change and increase performance within the confines of restrictive civil service rules– or in changing those rules in ways that are feasible and realistic. It could take an outsider years just to learn the slow tricks by which the bureaucracy subverts changes that could impact job stability.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said this month that the new VA leader won’t need experience in foreign wars, but rather the knowledge to fight “a straight-out war” against civil service unions that put their own job security and pay, at all costs, above getting veterans the best possible care.
“Do you think people who kill veterans should stay in their jobs?” he said. “[Should] we make the government union people happy and keep their jobs, people who we know broke the rules and killed veterans?”
“You can’t fix it unless you change the civil service laws,” he said. “You can’t change the civil service laws within the normal framework of Washington.” (RELATED: VA Labor Contract Favors Union Bureaucrats Over Vets For Jobs)
The Daily Caller News Foundation has reported on dozens of examples of the American Federation of Government Employees fighting to block high-level officials from disciplining employees who have failed veterans. Gingrich was not being figurative with the “killing” language. One nurse’s aide allegedly beat an elderly patient to death. The VA cleared him, but multiple outside investigators determined that they had ignored obvious evidence and charged him with manslaughter. The VA said civil service rules prevented it from disciplining him, and it continued to pay him as he sat in jail.
Last month, it emerged that VA employees hid a dead veteran’s body in a shower for nine hours and lied to cover up misconduct.
A military commander–coming from a world of rapid decisions and rigid discipline, in which violators can be thrown in the brig–might find it unfathomable that his reports could openly defy rules and he would be powerless to do much about it.
In fact, the last VA secretary, Eric Shinseki, was a retired general and resigned from the VA when he was unable to right the ship after staff hid long wait-times for veterans so that they could get bonuses.
Some in VA leadership seems to have given up on being able to implement reforms, and instead has focused on giving the image of accountability. When a veteran was eaten by maggots in a hospital bed, the VA took credit for a physician’s assistant who was responsible abruptly resigning. Then it emerged that the resignation was only a public relations tactic, and the VA had immediately re-hired the person at another hospital.
High-level employees, even though they are not unionized, are also difficult to fire because of appeals bodies like the Merit Systems Protections Board, and some of the most infamous disgraced executives who oversaw recent scandals are still working for the system.
Management has also resorted to paying bad employees to leave. Even as they say they abhor whistleblower retaliation, the deputy secretary authorized an $85,000 payment to convince an alleged whistleblower-retaliator to resign after he wanted to fire him but the situation got bogged down in appeals.
A Government Accountability Office report found that at a joint Department of Defense/VA hospital in Chicago, military commanders are so taken aback by civil service employees’ very different attitudes toward work that operations are difficult. Though the combined operations were supposed to save money by getting rid of redundancies, they neglected to work around a union contract that prevented any of the now-unnecessary employees from being fired.
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