House approves bill banning VA SES bonuses

Lawmakers are once again taking a stab at the Veterans Affairs Department, in hopes of holding executives more accountable for widespread problems at the agency.

Senior executives at the Veterans Affairs would not get performance bonuses, under an amendment to the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Bill of 2016.

Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Pa.) introduced the amendment, claiming it would help to fix poor management and improve accountability at VA facilities.

“One only needs to take a quick survey of the tremendous investigative work that Chairman [Jeff] Miller (R-Fla.), Congressman Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and the rest of my colleagues on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee have been doing to see that, despite our efforts to reform and improve the agency culture at the VA, little to nothing has changed,” Rothfus said.

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Same amendment, take three

The House passed the amendment on a voice vote Wednesday, before approving the full appropriations bill Thursday on a vote of 255 to 163, largely along party lines.

The spending bill includes $163 billion in discretionary and mandatory funding for VA — a $4.1 billion increase over this year, but still $1.5 billion lower than the White House’s request for 2016. The White House has threatened to veto the measure, saying it “fails to fully fund critical priorities.” VA Secretary Bob McDonald also said the funding is inadequte, and it would “cause veterans to suffer.”

The push to prohibit performance awards for senior executives isn’t a new calling from Rothfus. He successfully introduced the same amendment to the last two MilCon-VA spending bills.

“Senior executives must take responsibility for their failure to fix the problems, and until they do so, these dollars are better spent providing our veterans the first-rate care they rightly deserve.”

But senior executives are not the only employees responsible for fixing problems at VA, said Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association.

“His amendment will only serve to place an obstacle in the way of VA recruiting and retaining the best and the brightest, and ignores the fact that Senior Executives do not receive locality pay nor cost of living increases, as do General Schedule employees. Performance awards are an integral part of SES compensation. Once again, this is short-sighted congressional micro-management and will not serve our veterans well in the end,” Bonosaro said in an email to Federal News Radio.

A VA spokesman told Federal News Radio, “VA does not have a position on the amendment and generally does not comment on legislation outside of Congressional hearings.”

Is the amendment the right approach?

In his remarks on the House floor, Rothfus pointed to problems at VA’s regional office in Philadelphia. An inspector general report last month found officials changed dates on disability claims to make them look newer and paid more than $2 million in duplicate benefit payments.

The spending bill collectively allocates about half a billion dollars for disability claims processing and reducing the backlog. It also provides nearly $1 billion for VA construction projects. House Republicans said they hope that money will fix “egregious project management and cost overruns,” including a VA construction site near Denver, which is now years behind schedule and $1 billion over budget.

Coffman introduced a bill in March that would stop VA from giving out any bonuses until it finishes the construction in Aurora, Colorado. His rationale — suspending bonuses would allow construction to finish in a “deficit-neutral manner.”

Just last week, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) introduced a bill to let VA discipline or dismiss doctors who perform poorly or commit misconduct. The bill comes after several reports at regional VA medical centers, including Tomah, Wisconsin, which was dubbed “Candy Land” for how many opiates and painkillers doctors prescribed to veterans.

Although lawmakers agreed the VA has a host of problems it needs to fix, not all thought Rothfus’ amendment was the right approach.

“This amendment would make the VA a less attractive option than other agencies when it comes to recruiting and retaining quality executive leaders,” Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) said. “Attempting to do an across-the board, one-size- fits-all fix will penalize those dedicated VA executives who are working hard and well to find solutions to the VA’s problems. This is nonsense.”

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