Congress Passes VA Accountability Bill

The VA Accountability Bill has passed Congress. It will change human resources processes for taking action against agency employees.

The House of Representatives passed the Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017 on June 13 by a vote of 368-55. The Senate’s version of the bill had bipartisan support and passed by voice vote last week. The House vote was to pass the Senate bill.

The bill will now go to President Trump for his signature, replacing an earlier version that Democrats had criticized as overly unfair to workers. President Trump has already indicated his support for the bill so there is little chance that the bill will not become a new law.

Here is what the President said regarding the VA Accountability bill:

Senate passed the VA Accountability Act. The House should get this bill to my desk ASAP! We can’t tolerate substandard care for our vets.

The passage of the @DeptVetAffairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act is GREAT news for veterans! I look forward to signing it!

The bill was also endorsed by VA Secretary David Shulkin.

“I wish today I could tell you I have the tools to do the right thing, to be able to remove those employees. I do not,” Shulkin said in a Senate subcommittee hearing. “So unfortunately, I need a new set of tools if I’m going to be held accountable for turning this system around and doing what we all want to do to serve veterans.”

Expedited Procedures for Removal, Suspension or Demotion

The bill would impact executives and employees of the VA. It will enact a quicker procedure for removing or demoting an employee.

The Senate bill that has now passed provides a longer appeal process than the bill passed by the House. The bill that has passed in Congress provides for 180 days in the appeal process instead of the 45 days in the original House bill. VA executives would be subject to a different and more strict standard than lower ranking employees as outlined below.

A removal, demotion or suspension of more than 14 days could still be appealed to the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB). An appeal would have to be made within 10 days and an Administrative Judge of the MSPB would have to issue a decision within 180 days after the date of the appeal. The Judge would be required to uphold the decision by the VA Secretary if supported by substantial evidence. If supported, the penalty could not be mitigated.

If an employee prevails in an appeal, the employee would receive backpay.

Even if an employee files a grievance under the provisions of a union contract, instead of filing an appeal with the MSPB, the time limits in the bill would still apply.

There are also restrictions on paying an employee who has been demoted under the provisions of the bill. A person who is the subject of the action by the VA Secretary could not be placed on administrative leave during an appeal of the action. An employee would only receive pay if the employee reports for duty or is approved to use accrued unused annual, sick, family medical, military, or court leave.

Moreover, the new procedures would “supersede any collective bargaining agreement to the extent that such agreement is inconsistent with such procedures.”

Removing, Suspending or Demoting A Senior Executive

The bill would also have an impact on procedures for taking action against executives of the VA.

The bill enacts a quick procedure for removing or demoting an executive. As stated in the bill, “The aggregate period for notice, response…may not exceed 15 business days.” Also, the VA Secretary is to ensure that the grievance process takes fewer than 21 days.

A person covered by this procedure bill be entitled obtain judicial review of such decision.

Recouping Bonus Payments

The bill also allows the agency to recoup bonus payments made to an employee if the Secretary determines that the individual engaged in misconduct or poor performance prior to payment of the award or bonus. Also, the Secretary would have to determine that the award or bonus would not have been paid if the misconduct or poor performance been known prior to the agency making the payment.

Authority to Recoup Relocation Expenses

A similar provision applies to relocation expenses paid by the VA to an employee.

The VA Secretary will be entitled under this bill to issue an order directing an employee of the Department to repay the amount, or a portion of the amount, paid to or on behalf of the employee for relocation expenses if the expenses were paid following an act of fraud or malfeasance that influenced the authorization of the expenses.

Position of Union Representing VA Employees

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) is a federal employee union that represents a large number of employees in the VA.

In a press release, the union wrote:

…[T]he Senate bill will undercut the quality health care and services that veterans receive by eroding checks and balances that ensure hiring and firing decisions are based on merit.

(The bill) would undercut many of the workplace rights and protections that are designed to protect government workers from disciplinary actions that are politically or personally motivated. It is a politically motivated response to rare but highly publicized issues of misconduct that mangers could address today with proper documentation and effort….

Federal employee unions have usually been strong supporters of Democrats during elections and have exhorted supporters to vote for their favored candidates; the union nevertheless expresses concern about the federal civil service system becoming a more political system.

While the Senate bill only targets VA workers, its passage would open the door to eliminating due process rights for all federal employees and politicizing the civil service.

“The importance of maintaining a nonpartisan, apolitical civil service in an increasingly partisan environment cannot be overstated….Whatever lack of public confidence in government exists today will be magnified a hundredfold if all civil servants become de facto political appointees, serving at the whim of supervisors. And that is exactly what this horrible piece of legislation will do.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47