A bill affording the Department of Veterans Affairs secretary more power to punish employees passed the Senate on Wednesday, overcoming a hurdle that similar legislation over the past two years never did.
The legislation, S. 1094, is a bipartisan deal created to grant more firing authority to the VA secretary. It passed on a voice vote and will now go to the House. A vote count was not recorded.
“I think this is one of the days in the Senate where we can look back and say folks came together as Democrats and Republicans and did the right thing,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. “We’ve been at this for a while. I hope it’s worth the wait.”
In a joint statement after the Senate vote, Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., applauded the move and asked House leadership to quickly schedule a vote on the bill.
The measure would shorten the time that VA employees are allotted to appeal any disciplinary action against them, and it would require quicker determinations from the Merit Systems Protection Board, which hears the appeals. The bill would also allow the VA secretary to reduce the pension of a VA employee and recoup bonuses and relocation expenses in certain instances.
It also establishes a time limit for employee grievance procedures and lessens the evidentiary standards that the VA is required to meet to uphold decisions to fire employees.
They’re all changes VA Secretary David Shulkin has requested.
In a briefing at the White House on May 31, Shulkin again took an opportunity to call upon the Senate to pass the bill.
Law states federal employees are allotted 30 days advance written notice before they’re fired, demoted or suspended. Shulkin explained 1,500 VA employees are in that stage right now, awaiting disciplinary action. The span of time from when a manager decides to fire an employee to their actual removal now averages 51 days, he said.
The legislation that passed the Senate on Wednesday would cut that 30-day advance notice period to 10 days.
“Our accountability processes are clearly broken,” Shulkin said at the time.
The VA and lawmakers have used a few examples when advocating for the legislation.
In one instance, two executives were found to have manipulated the hiring system to move to positions of lesser responsibility while maintaining the same salary. The Merit System Protection Board last year reversed the VA’s attempt to discipline them.
More recently, the VA had to wait more than a month to fire a Houston psychiatrist who was caught watching pornography in front of a patient in April.
Shulkin said the VA was forced to allow an employee in Memphis, Tenn., to return to work last month after she was convicted of her third driving-while-intoxicated charge and served 60 days in jail.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the bill passed Wednesday could “correct the problems of the past.”
This should have passed years ago when it was first brought to light that veterans were dying while waiting for treatment at VA hospitals, but better late than never, I suppose.
There is no reason this bill shouldn’t sail through the House and get this implemented so Secretary Shulkin can drain the VA swamp of deadbeat employees.