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House votes to give VA more power to discipline employees

| Thursday, March 16, 2017, 10:27 p.m.
This June 21, 2013, file photo shows the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington.
This June 21, 2013, file photo shows the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington.

WASHINGTON — The Republican-led House approved legislation Thursday to make it easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs to fire, suspend or demote employees for poor performance or bad conduct, part of a renewed GOP effort targeting VA accountability in the new Trump administration.

The bill, which passed 237-178, would reduce the time that workers have available under a union grievance process to appeal a disciplinary action. Any employee facing discipline would receive advance notice of 10 days. The secretary would have five more days to complete the decision.

The measure would allow the VA to recoup bonuses awarded to employees later disciplined for misconduct.

The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Phil Roe of Tennessee, said the current grievance process could take up to 350 days to complete.

“It is beyond comprehension that with as much outright malfeasance that Congress, the American public, the media and our courageous whistleblowers have uncovered at VA ... that we still see far too many instances of VA employees not living up to the standards America expects,” Roe said.

“This legislation doesn't just build back the trust of America's veterans; it gives VA employees the trust to know that bad actors within the department will no longer have the power to taint their good name.”

The bill has the support of the White House and VA Secretary David Shulkin. But Democrats and unions cast the measure as an attack on workers' rights, saying the House version is too aggressive and unfairly punishes rank-and-file employees. Last year, a bipartisan Senate bill by Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., which was backed by the American Federation of Government Employees as more in balance with workers' due process rights, stalled during the presidential campaign.

Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., said protecting worker rights and holding VA accountable are not mutually exclusive. He unsuccessfully argued that the House adopt wording in Isakson's previous legislation to “get to the heart of this by going after managers,” not rank-and-file employees.

Lawmakers complain that few employees were fired after a 2014 wait-time scandal and other malfeasance at the VA, such as rising cases of drug theft. A 2014 law gave the VA greater power to discipline executives, but the department stopped using that authority after the Obama Justice Department deemed it likely unconstitutional.

The White House said it would recommend Trump sign the bill into law if passed. With more veterans receiving health care through the VA than ever before, “it is critical that federal employees be held to the highest performance standards,” the Office of Management and Budget said.

Accountability at the VA was a key campaign promise by Trump, who called the department “the most corrupt.” Trump's proposed 2018 budget seeks an extra $4.4 billion for the VA to strengthen its health care while also extending a Choice program aimed at giving veterans more access to private care.

The bill was one of three measures Thursday targeting VA changes:

• The House approved legislation aimed at protecting the gun rights of veterans. The bill, which passed 240-175, would allow veterans to legally designate someone to handle their finances without being barred from owning firearms.

Supporters called it affirmation of Second Amendment rights, while opponents worried it could too easily put guns in the hands of veterans with mental health distress.

The bill now goes to the Senate, where prospects are uncertain.

The VA currently classifies veterans as “mentally defective” if they designate another person to handle their affairs. Under the measure, the VA could no longer report this classification to the FBI. A magistrate or judicial authority would have to find the veteran to be a danger to himself or herself or to others before losing gun rights.

• The House also took up consideration of a bill aimed at improving the VA's ability to hire and retain top-level doctors and other employees. A vote is expected Friday.

Also Friday, Trump planned to host a “listening session” at the White House with Shulkin and representatives from the various service organizations that advocate for military veterans, spokesman Sean Spicer said.

Veterans' groups have been seeking to meet with Trump since he took office in January. Trump has held multiple listening sessions with different groups, but Friday's session would be Trump's first with veterans, a constituency he has promised to take care of.

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