Luke Rosiak on May 3, 2016 at The Daily Caller News Foundation
All of a federal employee union’s objections were removed from a Senate bill designed to help the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) discipline bad employees, making it politically easier for the bill to pass, but indicating it may not be doing the very thing it’s supposed to.
The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) sent a letter April 18 asking taxpayer-funded employees to pressure Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. Isakson is a Georgia Republican.
“I strongly urge you to oppose the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs omnibus bill in its current form,” president J. David Cox wrote. “No less than the future of the VA health care system is at stake here.”
He enumerated four accountability measures that caused him to oppose the bill. Days later, Democrats joined Republicans to announce a final version they planned to introduce. A Daily Caller News Foundation computer analysis of the two texts showed all four measures had been walked back, while virtually no other changes were made.
The result was a VA employment reform bill that backtracked on measures dealing with the vast majority of the workforce, leaving mainly restrictions on Senior Executive Service (SES) members, who represent only one in 1,000 VA employees.
“It’s the career senior executives who are more responsible than anyone for setting the tone of the workplace and maintaining the culture at the VA, and they’re the ones collecting the biggest taxpayer-funded salaries,” Isakson’s spokeswoman Lauren Gaydos told TheDCNF.
The original draft said no employee may complete their initial probationary period unless their manager affirmatively signs off on it. But this was changed so the employee will automatically become permanent unless other action is taken.
The Government Accountability Office recently said one of the best ways to ensure bad employees are booted from government is by not renewing them after the probation period, but the period often ends without managers realizing it.
The union’s other three complaints were that employees didn’t have enough time to appeal, reprimands wouldn’t be removed from their file quickly enough, and performance reviews could be revised after the fact.
Isakson quickly allowed all of these to be changed. For example, the draft bill says letters of reprimand could be removed from an employee’s file after five years, but the final version reduces it to three years.
Even the accountability measures for senior executives are burdened with so many caveats they may have little effect. Senior executives stand to have their pensions diminished after resigning to avoid firing only if they are convicted of a felony, have exhausted appeals on the felony, the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) determines the felony was sufficiently related to their work, and the VA secretary chooses to avail themselves of the option.
Even then, the disgraced director can appeal this decision to OPM. (RELATED: The Senior Executive Association and Its Law Firm Keep Bad Apples In Government, Making Big Money In The Process)
The changes assured support from the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. AFGE has openly said it would work to help him win re-election because of his efforts to make it hard to fire VA employees.
In a March letter, Sen. Marco Rubio and House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller said Isakson had cut the Republican-led House out of negotiations and expressed concern he seemed intent on reaching a deal with the Obama administration at any cost. The House has already passed a stronger VA accountability bill, but if the Senate’s version does not match it, those differences will have to be ironed out in a conference committee.
AFGE sent its letter opposing the draft bill before the public had even seen the proposal. Gaydos said Isakson did not share the text with the union, but it was leaked to it by another member of the committee. AFGE did not return a request for comment.
Gaydos said the House bill “simply does not have the requisite 60 votes to pass the Senate nor does it have enough support in the House to override a White House veto threat that has been issued against it. Because of that, Chairman Isakson set out to create an accountability bill that actually has a chance of being signed into law.”
Veterans advocates and House Republicans believe the bill should be brought for a floor vote under the normal process — rather than using expedited “unanimous consent” where even one Democrat is enough to stop it — forcing Democrats to publicly weigh the interests of VA employees against those of veterans.
House Republicans said the Senate bill often simply restates existing law in different terms, giving the false impression of strengthening.
For example, current law gives 30 calendar days for an employee to respond to proposed discipline. The Senate bill changes it to two 10-day periods, but uses business days, shortening a 30-day period by only a few days.
Gaydos said under the Senate bill, “employees cannot receive any pay or other compensation or benefits during the appeals process.” But House Republicans said that is already the case, and the lengthy paid-time-off was occurring during pre-firing proceedings, before appeals kick in.
Isakson bill’s focusing on 0.1 percent of the VA’s workforce misses some of the most notable instances where VA officials have lamented their inability under existing laws and regulations to fire poorly performing or corrupt employees.
“As far as Phoenix is concerned, many of the employees involved would fall under the SES provision of the Veterans First Act,” Gaydos said, referring to the hospital that was the epicenter of the department’s most severe scandal.
Lance Robinson and Brad Curry, top deputies at the Phoenix VA, were returned to work after collecting pay for more than a year because the VA failed in its efforts to discipline them. Though they were among the very top administrators, only the hospital’s director, Sharon Helman, was a member of the SES.
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