As the Veterans Affairs scandal grew larger and more worrisome for Democrats, lawmakers in the House seized an opportunity to act on the issue with legislation empowering the VA secretary to fire incompetent subordinates.
The bill would give Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki the authority to remove or transfer senior level executives without having to deal with the government red tape that makes such dismissals a lengthy and difficult process.
It passed overwhelmingly by a vote of 390-33.
The House began debating the measure May 21, shortly after President Obama made his first public address on the matter in weeks.
Obama responded with frustration and anger to a widening scandal involving significant mismanagement at VA hospitals across the country that in some cases was so severe that veterans died or were left near death waiting for care.
Veterans groups have called for Shinseki to resign.
But Obama didn’t call for any immediate changes or the resignation of Shinseki. He said people would be held accountable if reports of patient backlogs and mismanagement proved true after an investigation was completed.
Republicans, meanwhile, see the president’s inaction as a chance for them to step in and show leadership on the issue.
“The committee has received nothing but disturbing silence from the White House and one excuse after another from the Department of Veterans Affairs,” House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said during debate on bill.
The House legislation shifts the blame away from Shinseki and zeroes in on mangers who work under him and are accused of allowing significant patient backlogs, secret waiting lists and falsified records at a growing list of VA medical centers across the country.
“General Shinseki is a good man,” Miller, the bill’s sponsor, said. “He wants to hold others accountable, but he is being held back by a failed civil service system that makes it nearly impossible to fire senior civil service employees.”
So far, nobody in the VA has been fired over the mismanagement practices, although one top executive, VA Under Secretary Robert Petzel, stepped down earlier this month, ahead of his planned retirement.
The VA employs approximately 450 senior executives. They do not belong to a union but enjoy dozens of protections against being fired, censured or reprimanded. The House bill would lift many of those protections.
The VA put out a statement opposing the House bill.
“Changes that would single out VA employees for punishment by removing existing federal civil service rules not only put VA at a competitive disadvantage, but can ultimately harm VA's ability to best serve veterans,” the statement said.
Some House Democrats voiced the same concern, including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., whose district is home to many federal workers. Hoyer urged lawmakers to vote against stripping out the protections, which were written into law decades ago to protect senior management from being fired for political reasons when administrations change.
“I believe it opens the door to a slippery slope of undoing careful civil service protections that have been in place for decades,” Hoyer said. “This is about due process.”
But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are desperate to show they are taking action to change the department amid reports of veterans dying while waiting for care from mismanaged VA medical centers.
“I reluctantly support this legislation because I believe we owe it to the brave men and women who sacrifice so much, to be able to assure that the VA is accountable for its performance,” Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, said.
So far, only a handful of Republicans and two Democrats have called for Shinseki to resign, but that list could grow if the almost daily reports of VA mismanagement continue.
“The first person we need to fire is the secretary of Veterans Affairs, Mr. Shinseki himself,” Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., said. “The buck stops at the top.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has not indicated yet whether he will take up the VA measure in the Senate.