VA accountability: Is your job next?

The Department of Veterans Affairs will soon have a new fast-track system to spot, punish and fire employees for a variety of reasons. Senior Correspondent Mike...

It’s long been said that when the giant Defense Department gets a cold, other federal agencies get the sniffles. DoD often leads the way, with the first buyout program and performance-based pay systems, with other agencies either adopting or modifying them.

So what about the second-largest nonpostal federal operation, the Department of Veterans Affairs? With 371,000 workers in hospitals and facilities all over the country, the VA is a major player not so much because of its size, but because of its critical, often life-or-death and highly visible mission. And because of that, when it makes a mistake or gets caught up in a scandal, it is big news. And a political timebomb.

Its latest round of problems came with revelations — starting at the Phoenix medical center — that some high-ranking employees had falsified records (in some cases, keeping the equivalent of two sets of books) to make it appear veterans were getting the help they needed in a timely fashion when they weren’t.

As the U.S. military transitioned from the draft or selective service to an all-volunteer force, the armed forces, once composed of huge numbers of draftees from all regions and economic levels, became an all-professional fighting force. Reenlistment bonuses are paid to keep pros with special skills on the job so the majority of young men and women can go about their civilian careers.

The change means fewer Americans today actually know somebody in service. Veterans, who once made up over half the House and Senate, are rarely on Capitol Hill today. As a result, many think, Congress and the public are especially touchy (for good reason) when things appear to go bad, and unpunished. Like the VA. Which explains the concerted and rapid effort for Congress to “reform” and streamline the VA personnel system, making it easier to catch, punish and/or fire workers. And it is about to happen. And when it does, is your agency next?

In the political world, most federal agencies — from the General Services Administration to the Secret Service — are just one “scandal” away from the spotlight and the dunking stool.

The fact that the House recently OK’d a VA accountability bill is no surprise. VA has been in the cross-hairs for years, since it was revealed that some employees and officials in two hospitals faked records to make it appear that service to patients (sometimes late, sometimes nonexistent) was good. So it’s not a surprise that the new guidelines have been approved by Congress. The National Federation of Federal Employees warns that the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act will “lower the burden of proof in cases involving alleged misconduct” of VA employees.

What is a surprise: the size of the vote. There are 435 members of the House of Representatives. The vote to overhaul VA personnel rules was 368 for and only 55 against the pending changes. Those numbers, in the highly partisan world of Washington, aren’t just big. They are huge.

Those numbers could be indicators of if/when Congress takes up other measures to address the bureaucracy and its perks.

Starting with the Trump administration’s three-pronged attack on the CSRS and FERS retirement system. The idea is to eliminate completely any future cost-of-living adjustments for FERS retirees. It would also scale back inflation-tracking COLAs for CSRS retirees by 0.5 percent less than the actual rise in living costs. Number three would require FERS employees to up their contributions to the retirement fund by 1 percent each year for the next six years. So take-home pay would drop now, if enacted, and keep declining each year, even as the actual benefit on retirement was made much less valuable.

Oh yes, and eliminate the Social Security supplement now available under the FERS program. That supplement, which can be worth thousands of dollars, is meant to bridge the gap between the time FERS workers retire and become eligible for Social Security at age 62. Make that four prongs.

The good news about the retirement plan bad news is that it has given federal unions, management groups, retiree organizations and others their biggest issue — and reason to work together — in decades. Assaulting the retirement plan, breaking promises as workers and retirees see it, is the perfect banner to rally around. The 30-member Federal-Postal Coalition says active and retired federal and postal workers could lose $139 million in take-home pay (because of higher retirement plan contributions) and reduced or frozen annuities if the diet-and-zero-COLA plans become law.

They’ve also gotten a written pledge from over 100 House members to block the proposed cuts. The House fight is being led by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who have led successful federal pay raise efforts over the objections of Presidents Clinton and Bush. They’ve been joined by Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), the newest member of the Beltway band representing 14 percent of the nation’s federal employees.

That’s an excellent start. But one important thing is missing! What’s that? Check this space tomorrow.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Jory Heckman

A cubic mile of ocean water can contain up to 25 lbs of gold

Source: U.S. Geological Survey

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