House bill would reduce SES pensions at VA

By Sean McCalley
Federal News Radio

The House of Representatives is thinking of more elaborate ways to punish senior executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs. But this time, instead of speeding up the firing process, the House is taking aim at their pensions and salaries.

A new bill from House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), would retract an SES member’s retirement benefits if they committed a crime that affected their job performance. Upon conviction, the executive would lose years of service creditable to their pension. In other words, the executive’s pension shrinks because they have to forfeit time spent in the federal service.

Beyond curtailing pension payments, the bill would also change how VA awards performance bonuses. Miller’s system works similar to how a classroom might grade on a curve, where only 30 percent of senior executives can qualify for top performance ratings and earn a bonus.

“More than nine months after the VA scandal, Americans are asking ‘where is the accountability?'” said Miller in a statement. “Unfortunately, VA doesn’t have a good answer to this question.” Miller said he hopes to provide answers with the new VA Accountability to Veterans Act of 2015.

Miller also wants to “reduce waste” by scaling back the total amount of paid administrative leave the VA can grant employees to 14 days. Normally, agencies set their own policies for paid administrative leave, and the vast majority of federal employees — at any agency — used no more than five days between 2011 and 2013, according to the Government Accountability Office. GAO said the most common reason federal employees took long periods of paid leave (i.e. more than 20 days) was to handle “personal matters,” which includes allegations of misconduct.

In the wake of GAO’s report issued last October, the VA said it was reviewing and updating its paid administrative leave policies.

The bill would also require senior executives to change jobs within the VA at least once every five years.

In case this bill looks familiar…

To clarify, this bill is markedly different than the one House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) introduced in October 2013 in the wake of the scandal. After the President signed that one into law in August 2014, it let the VA Secretary immediately remove senior executives from the payroll if accused of misconduct. That employee then has one week to appeal. The law is also funding the construction of new VA facilities, college tuition for veterans, and better medical care for military sexual assault victims.

This most recent bill is also different from the VA Management Accountability Act of 2014, which Miller introduced four months after Chairman Rogers. Miller’s bill was almost identical to the one Rogers introduced, except it only focused on how to fire senior executives. It easily passed the House, then languished in the Senate.

The House also passed a bill in April 2014 to ban SES bonuses at the VA.

The Senior Executives Association was an outspoken critic of the measures since their introduction. SEA President Carol Bonosaro said at the time the VA already had all the tools it needed to quickly remove executives hurting the agency’s mission. She also says the constant drumbeat against the SES in Congress is having a serious impact on morale across the federal government.

VA Secretary Robert McDonald, who took over the agency after the scandal led to the resignation of his predecessor Eric Shinseki, is also restructuring the agency’s bureaucracy to enable more internal critiques of how the agency runs.

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