A new bill would give the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs the power to fire or demote senior department officials based on performance.
The Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act of 2014, introduced Feb. 11 by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., would provide VA secretaries with the authority to discipline the more than 400 members of the senior executive service who currently work for VA.
Members of SES serve in key positions just below presidential appointees. According to the White House, members of the senior executive service operate and oversee nearly every government activity in approximately 75 federal agencies, and are managed by the Office of Personnel Management.
But it can be difficult for agency heads to fire a member of SES. According to a source familiar with the process, senior executives may only be removed for misconduct, neglect of duty, malfeasance or failure to accept a directed reassignment. In addition, SES employees have a right to attorney and appeal, according to the Congressional Research Service.
The bill comes after a string of serious problems and missteps at the agency, including the deaths of 31 veterans at VA facilities many said could have been prevented, a software glitch that compromised more than 5,000 veterans’ personal information and high-profile controversies stemming from tens of millions of dollars in conference spending and bonuses.
Miller has already introduced a bill, which unanimously passed the House in January, aimed at censuring VA executives by banning performance bonuses.
“The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ widespread and systemic lack of accountability for senior executives is exacerbating all of its most pressing problems,” said a statement from the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
According to the statement, senior VA executives who presided over negligence were more likely to have received bonuses or positive performance reviews than punishments.
A number of veterans’ organizations have issued statements in support of the bill.
“Concerned Veterans for America has witnessed, with increasing alarm, the poor state of VA management; not only leading to long wait times for veterans, but also to serious health care problems and even deaths” said Concerned Veterans for America CEO Pete Hegseth. “It’s past time for reform and accountability at this dysfunctional department.”
However, the Senior Executives Association has taken issue with the bill, saying it does not provide oversight in the firing process and is susceptible to partisan influence.
“The bill now allows an agency head – a political appointee – to fire Senior Executives with no due process and no oversight or, alternatively, to demote them to any level of the General Schedule. This is a terrible precedent that threatens to politicize the career senior leadership of the government,” said SEA President Carol Bonosaro in a statement.
It is still unknown when or if the VA committee will take up the bill.