Legislation to hold Veterans Affairs employees accountable faces major Senate hurdle

dc-news-300x71Jonah Bennett, DCNF

A bill to give Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin authority to quickly fire incompetent employees faces a major battle in the Senate, although it has his backing and has already passed the House.

Secretary David Shulkin testifying before a Senate committee / Source: Screenshot

Shulkin came out in favor of the legislation after realizing he couldn’t immediately fire an employee caught watching pornography at work, and now seven key senators are backing this legislation, after it was introduced on the Senate side by GOP Sen. Marco Rubio.

Those senators are Republicans Tim Scott, Jeff Flake, James Inhofe, Thom Tillis, Todd Young, Pat Toomey and Mike Lee. And yet, it’s possible that Democrats could kill the bill, as they have done in the past.

While the VA Accountability First Act of 2017 passed the House, only 10 Democrats voted in support. The ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Democratic Rep. Tim Walz, voted against the bill.

A vote on the bill has not yet been scheduled.

“After the House passed the bill last month, I’m hopeful the Senate will take up our legislation soon,” Rubio told The Daily Signal.

“With the Trump Administration’s strong support for our efforts to bring real accountability to the VA, we have a great opportunity to do right by our veterans and help them get the quality care they have earned.”

Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, said he is ready to cooperate with Democrats to get the legislation passed.

“I’m committed to moving legislation that gives Secretary Shulkin the tools to discipline bad employees,” Isakson told The Daily Signal. “Accountability reform is a top priority, and I look forward to continuing to work with House VA committee Chairman Phil Roe and ranking member Tim Walz, as well as with Senate VA committee ranking member Jon Tester and Secretary Shulkin, to accomplish this goal.”

Isakson attempted to cooperate with Democrats last year on bipartisan legislation to speed up firing of incompetent employees, but that legislation stalled after passing his committee, which reduces the chance that the VA Accountability First Act will pass in the Senate, given that it’s much more aggressive. Democrats have cited the importance of collective bargaining rights and due process in their decision to oppose the legislation, and Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal in particular was instrumental in stopping Rubio’s previous bill in late 2015 by blocking a rush vote.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which serves as the union for VA employees, has denounced the bill multiple times in the past.
“Instead of hiring the more than 45,000 front-line caregivers our veterans desperately need, they’d rather spend their time sticking it to the people who serve veterans every day,” AFGE National President David Cox said in early March.

But the tide has been turning. In 2016, former VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson admitted that it was simply too hard to terminate bad employees. The inability to remove incompetent and corrupt employees has brought major scandal on the department, which has found it difficult to fire an employee who engaged in armed robbery, or even discipline a nurse who participated in a surgery on a veteran while intoxicated.

Whether Republicans in the Senate will be able to muster enough votes to get a VA accountability bill to President Donald Trump remains to be seen given stringent Democratic opposition, but unlike his predecessor, Trump is likely to sign the bill as soon as it reaches his desk, instead of issuing a veto.

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