House passes bill to make it easier to fire VA employees, despite veto threat

The House passed the VA Accountability Act of 2015 (H.R. 1994)  Wednesday, on a vote of 256 to 170. The bill would give the Veterans Affairs Department the power to remove or demote a VA employee based on misconduct or their performance.

The White House issued a statement earlier in the week, saying President Barack Obama would veto the current bill if it came to his desk.

“The bill compiles a number of separate personnel policy bills aimed solely at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) workforce, creating a disparity in the treatment of one group of career civil servants,” the statement said. “The centerpiece of the bill is a provision that allows a VA employee to be removed from Federal service or demoted without the opportunity to appeal that decision to the full Merit Systems Protection Board.  An employee who has been removed or demoted under this provision is instead subject to an abbreviated review process before an administrative law judge that may in some cases deprive employees of any appellate review whatsoever. These provisions remove important rights, protections, and incentives which are available to the vast majority of Federal employees in other agencies across the Government and are essential to ensure that Federal employees are afforded due process.”

Under the legislation, the VA would be able to remove or demote an individual by reducing their grade or annual pay rate. An employee would have seven days to make an appeal to the MSPB in the case of a removal or demotion. An administrative judge will have 45 days to make a final decision on such an appeal. The VA won’t be able to remove or demote an employee without approval of the Special Counsel if that employee seeks a corrective action from the Office of Special Counsel if the removal or demotion is based on an alleged prohibited personnel practice.

“Other provisions of the bill, such as those that would mandate rotation of VA Senior Executive employees every five years or impose arbitrary restrictions on performance ratings provided to VA Senior Executives, would also be disruptive and would hinder VA’s ability to function effectively on behalf of veterans,” the White House said.

The bill directs the Government Accountability Office to study the amount of time VA employees spend on labor organizing activities and how much of the department’s space they use in these activities.

“HR 1994 represents a series of unnecessary legislative ‘fixes’ to a system that already provides the VA and every other federal agency the power to fully address performance and conduct problems in its workforce,” the Senior Executives Association said, in a statement. “The system that exists today is fair and reasonable, but may not be used to its greatest potential. Congress should not pass another mean spirited piece of legislation designed to promote more anti-public worker sentiment and further demoralize the federal workforce.”

The SEA also opposed mandatory reassignment for SES members once every five years, saying that it was an arbitrary requirement that would cost taxpayers millions in relocation costs.

“Decisions to reassign individual senior executives should be made for good business reasons, not to satisfy a requirement which constitutes Congress’ concept of how a particular executive branch department should be managed,” said SEA President Carol Bonosaro.

Beth Moten, the legislative and political director of the American Federal of Government Employees, sent a letter to members of Congress outlining her union’s objections to H.R. 1994, including the chilling effect it would create for federal whistleblowers.

“Under H.R. 1994, every whistleblower, along with every other VA employee, would become at-will employees,” Moten wrote. “Without due process rights no VA employee who wishes to keep his or her job will ever feel safe blowing the whistle in the workplace or at the Congressional witness table.”

The bill now moves onto the Senate for consideration.

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