House passes new VA accountability, appeals reform legislation

This story was updated at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 14 to reflect that the House passed the VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act. 

The House passed a bill that would change how the Veterans Affairs Department disciplines and fires its employees and senior executives — sparking further debate from some Democratic lawmakers, the Obama administration and federal employee groups over future comprehensive veterans reform.

The VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act of 2016, which House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) introduced before the August recess, would shorten the time in which VA employees and senior executives could appeal disciplinary actions and removals.

Miller’s legislation also would ban all VA senior executives from receiving performance bonuses between 2017 and 2021.

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The bill did not go through the House VA Committee. But Democratic lawmakers this week proposed some 75 new amendments to the legislation through the Rules Committee. The chamber included 12 in the final version of the bill. House debate on this bill began Tuesday and continued Wednesday evening.

It also includes a long-awaited and often lauded proposal to reform the veterans appeals process. The legislation incorporates the VA’s proposal for appeals reform, which the department developed this spring with several veterans service organizations.

The Obama administration said it’s pleased to see VA’s appeals proposal appear in the legislation, and it supports those specific provisions.

“The essential feature of this new approach is to step away from a unified appeals process that tries to do many unrelated things inside a single process and replace that with differentiated lanes, which give veterans clear options after receiving an initial decision on a claim,” the administration said in a Sept. 12 statement of policy. “And it would allow all veterans to have a clear answer and path forward on their appeal within one year from filing.”

But the administration said it’s “deeply concerned” by the provisions in the bill that would change how VA disciplines its employees and senior executives.

“The approach to accountability in the legislation — focused primarily on firing or demoting employees without appropriate or meaningful procedural protections — is misguided and burdensome,” the administration wrote. “This approach significantly alters and diminishes important rights and protections that are available to the vast majority of other employees across the government and which are essential to safeguarding employees’ rights and the merit system.”

The administration also said the bill raises some legislative concerns, specifically over the time limits imposed on VA employees and executives to respond and appeal to disciplinary action.

“[It] includes several provisions that are likely to be overturned by our justice system, which is why the Department of Justice, Office of Personnel Management and the VA itself have all raised serious objections,” Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), the acting ranking member on the House Veterans Affairs Committee,  said Tuesday from the House floor.

Takano suggested the House remove the provisions on appeals reform and take it up as separate legislation.

The bill has also received criticism from some federal employee unions and organizations.

“This legislation is not about improving how we treat and care for our veterans,” said American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox in a statement. “It’s a partisan effort to allow favoritism and cronyism to govern the VA by turning VA employees, and ultimately every federal worker, into an at-will employee who can be fired at any time with little to no recourse.”

The Senior Executives Association also took aim at the bill.

“This legislation suggests more of an interest in the appearance of reforming the VA workforce than a real commitment to undertaking the hard work of understanding what the real problems are, working with stakeholders to craft a solution and holding parties responsible to see improvements through to a conclusion,” SEA Interim President Jason Briefel wrote in a Sept. 13 letter to House lawmakers.

The origins of this bill have a long and complicated past.

Miller introduced similar legislation last summer, then called the VA Accountability Act. The provisions are slightly different than those Miller introduced this year, but the general goal is similar: to make it easier for the department to fire and discipline poor-performing VA employees, particularly senior executives.

“Members are very involved in what we’re trying to accomplish on both sides of the aisle,” Miller told Federal News Radio last week. “It is a fine line that some on the Democratic side have to walk on accountability. But we need to be beholden to the veteran, not the union bosses.”

Meanwhile, Democrats in the House voiced their support Tuesday for the Veterans First Act, which the Senate VA Committee passed out of committee in May. Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) called the Senate legislation, which has 44 co-sponsors, “a critical step to achieving true accountability that the VA so desperately needs.”

But Republicans scoffed at the idea that the Senate legislation could be Congress’ answer to comprehensive veterans reform.

“The Senate bill has not moved,” Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) said on the House floor. “The Senate bill has not passed out of the Senate and shows no hope of passing out of the Senate at this point. Why should we take that, when we have a bill that can move?”

But some House Democrats contended the Senate option is a better solution and objected to the “last minute” manner in which Miller’s bill appeared on the floor and the Rules Committee added amendments to the legislation.

Briefel said the addition of more amendments is an attempt by House Democrats to flesh out Miller’s legislation with more provisions and craft a companion bill similar to the Senate Veterans First Act.

“It doesn’t mean it’s perfect,” Takano said of the Senate bill. “It doesn’t mean that in its current form, it would be voted out of the Senate, but it is a far more bipartisan approach than the one that is before us today.”

Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) acknowledged in August that the Veterans First Act had “hit a couple of stumbling blocks” in his chamber, but senators largely weren’t opposed to the accountability provisions in the bill, he said. Isakson’s original plan was to get the bill to the President by Memorial Day.

The committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the recent legislative debate.

“If you think the Senate can pass something, wait for them,” Collins said. “But as they say, for such a time as this, you have a moment. It’s a moment of choosing. It’s a time to decide, are we going to continue to make excuses? Are we going to put the veterans first?”

Miller was equally firm about his plans for passing veterans legislation.

“I’m always in dialogue with the Senate,” Miller said when asked about his work with the other chamber on veterans accountability legislation. “They march to the tune of a different drummer. But I’m in the House, and I’m going to pass a bill in the House.”

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