House of Representatives Passes Bill Making it Easier for VA to Fire Employees
Just about every person in America has heard at least tidbits about the scandals that have rocked the VA in recent years. The disability backlog, the secret patient waiting lists at VA hospitals, the resignation of the Eric Shinseki, and others. While just about everyone agrees that the current status quo is unacceptable and that something needs to drastically change, it seems that the two parties in Washington are once again stagnating because they cannot agree on a solution. It may just be me, but sometimes it seems like they don’t want to agree with each other. This has been highlighted by the recent passage of a bill by the House of Representatives that would make it easier for the VA to fire employees, demote employees, and also creates a probationary period for new employees.
The bill creates an 18-month probationary period for permanent new-hires and gives their supervisors the ability to either extend the probationary period or make them permanent. The bill was proposed by Representative Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican. On the House floor, Mr. Miller said, “The Secretary needs the ability to make real reforms and he needs the ability to do it quicker than the current timeline of 6 to 12 months to remove a single employee.” Miller was referring to the numerous (some would say overabundant) protections that a federal employee enjoys from being unfairly fired from their job. While we definitely want public sector workplaces to be non-discriminatory and fair in their hiring and firing practices, there’s a reason it has become part of our culture to joke about the cushiness of a government job.
Not surprisingly, Representative Miller was supported by his fellow Republicans, including Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas) who agreed that the VA needs to be able to fire employees who aren’t up to snuff or are neglecting their responsibilities. Also not surprisingly, the White House is planning to veto the bill if it makes it through the Senate. The bill came about primarily because of the VA hospital waiting list scandal, which caused Eric Shinseki to resign and caused a tidal wave of outrage and demands for change – many of which were directed at the process for firing bad employees. The Washington Times reports:
“Since taking over last summer, VA Secretary Robert McDonald has tried to reform the agency and root out bad employees, but he has encountered some setbacks. In June, the acting director of the VA’s investigative arm was forced to step down after facing criticism from both whistleblowers and members of Congress that he has interfered in the agency’s investigations to protect VA leadership.”
Democrats generally hate the bill. Some have said that it will turn the VA into an at-will workplace, which would make it one-of-a-kind in the federal government, and that an at-will workplace does not provide any due process for employees that have gotten fired. Representative Mark Takano says that the VA needs the nation’s top doctors, and that it is already difficult enough to get the best practitioners to move away from the private sector and come into the VA, and that the new hiring policies would make it even harder to recruit them. Democrats accuse the Republicans of ‘union-busting’ and trying to punish federal employees while Republicans are accusing Democrats of trying to cater to the Unions and just being contrary for the sake of being contrary. One question I was not able to find an answer to was whether there were any research or studies done to determine the root causes of the issues at the VA. Is the root problem the inability of the VA to fire bad employees, or is it something else?
While public debate about this bill has mostly devolved into name-calling, talking-points, and rhetoric, the House has passed it, the Senate has a similar bill they might vote on, or they might vote on the House’s version, and the President will have the opportunity to veto it (which he has said he will do) if it comes to his desk. For myself, and I’m sure many other people, the entire situation simply highlights what we are all frustrated with about the current political environment in America.