Veterans Affairs

VA accountability bill clears Congress

Shutterstock image. Copyright Mikhail Kolesnikov.  

The House voted overwhelmingly to approve a Senate-passed bill that makes it easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs to fire employees, while also establishing an office of whistleblower protection.

The Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 gives VA leaders new authority to suspend, discipline or terminate employees for wrongdoing or poor performance. VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin and many of his predecessors have called for more streamlined firing authority for the agency to prevent disciplinary proceedings that can last years with no result.

The bill passed the House on June 13 by a vote of 368 to 55.

The bill originated in the House but that version included measures that curtailed the grievance process for unionized employees, which drew opposition from federal employee unions and many congressional Democrats. A compromise crafted by Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) strengthened some of the union protections and passed the full Senate.

The compromise bill restores the union grievance process, which was eliminated in the House bill, but shortens the period and binds it to the Merit Systems Protection Board schedule. It lowers the burden of proof required to discipline an employee. It also requires that the official heading the whistleblower protection office be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

"This is a heavy lift," said Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), the ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, at a June 12 Rules Committee hearing. Walz said public sector unions are "not super happy, but change needed to happen and we struck a compromise."

Accountability, Walz said, "is not code word for something…it's not code word to fire everyone and it's not code word to break a union, but it's also not code word to pretend that everything is fine" at the VA.

Shulkin praised the passage of the bill as "fulfilling one of my highest priorities" at the VA.

"It's common sense," Shulkin said in a statement. "We need to hold our employees accountable for their actions if they violate the public trust, and at the same time protect whistleblowers from retaliation. This legislation will help us do just that."

President Trump is expected to sign the legislation.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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