Senate introduces bipartisan legislation to give VA Secretary increased firing authority

A bipartisan group of Senators has announced an agreement on details of a bill that would make it easier to fire federal employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

A bipartisan group of Senators has announced an agreement on details of a bill that would make it easier to fire federal employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Text and summaries of the legislation, sponsored by Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and co-sponsored by nine other senators four Democrats, five Republicans were not immediately available, but is described in press reports as a “softer” version of a bill sponsored by Rep. Ken Buck (R-Co.) that was introduced the House in March.

That bill, which passed 229-187 on a mostly party-line vote, gives the VA Secretary increased authority to “reprimand or suspend, involuntarily reassign, demote, or remove a covered individual from a senior executive position” for misconduct. It also gives the secretary discretion to determine what constitutes misconduct, though any dismissal would still be subject to appeals, whistleblower protections and judicial review.

The Senate version will reportedly bolster those protections and give employees more time to appeal a decision. Senator Jon Tester, one of the cosponsors involved in the modifications, said it struck the right balance between “hold[ing] bad employees accountable while protecting the hardworking folks who are responsible for serving veterans.”

"The challenges at the VA are many, but tough problems require commonsense solutions and this bipartisan bill is a product of what happens when you put aside politics and work together,” said Tester in a statement released after the agreement was announced.

The Department of Veterans Affairs was a logical place to start. Since 2014 a steady stream of scandals around improper or negligent care at VA hospitals has wracked the department, earning widespread condemnation and spurring bipartisan calls for accountability and reform.

In testimony to Congress, VA Secretary David Shulkin said the bill was “necessary” to deal with the “very, very small number of employees who have deviated and drifted” from the Department’s mission who “no longer should have the privilege of serving in our system.”

“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,” said Shulkin during his testimony. “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.”

The legislation also marks the first concrete steps toward a goal that has been floated by President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans since taking full control of the government in January: reining in and reducing the federal workforce. Since January, a host of legislation and Executive Branch actions have been introduced or implemented with the intent to loosen worker protections, reduce benefits, cap hiring and in some cases, eliminate or drastically reduce the authority of agencies and departments.

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