GOP bills seek to clean house at VA

Republicans in the House and Senate have proposed legislation that would give the secretary of Veterans Affairs the authority to fire or demote senior officials based on performance.

The move is a reaction to the ongoing failure of the VA to clear the backlog of disability claims from veterans, something that has drawn criticism from both parties.

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House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) proposed the bill in the House, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced companion legislation in the Senate in response to reams of evidence indicating a widespread lack of accountability toward the department's disability benefits backlog, and what the committee says are preventable veteran deaths.

Miller said several reports from VA's inspector general show the department continues to mismanage these claims, and the Government Accountability Office has found the VA is awarding bonuses without any clear link to performance.

"VA's widespread and systemic lack of accountability is exacerbating all of its most pressing problems, including the department's stubborn disability benefits backlog and a mounting toll of at least 31 recent, preventable veteran deaths at VA medical centers across the country," Miller said Tuesday.

"With all the problems VA hospitals and regional offices have recently had and new issues continually arising, we need to give the VA secretary the authority he needs to fix things," he added. "That's what my bill would do."

Miller said the VA suffers from a "well-documented reluctance to ensure its leaders are held accountable for mistakes" that are ruining the reputation of the department.

Rubio said that, while current law does allow Senior Executive Service (SES) workers to be fired or disciplined, these efforts can get bogged down in red tape that can drag out the process for months. Their bill is aimed at eliminating some of these hurdles to make it easier for the VA to shed workers.

"Giving the VA secretary complete authority to manage executives based on their performance discourages career employees from evading appropriate punishments and helps restore the public's faith in the organization," he said.

The legislation would give the VA complete discretion to fire or demote SES employees at the department. SES workers are those who are just below presidential appointees and are charged with overseeing dozens of federal agencies.

According to Miller's office, most VA hospital and regional offices are run by SES employees or SES equivalents. Miller's committee has tracked the awarding of thousands of dollars in bonuses in VA offices around the country, despite ongoing performance problems and more backlogged disability claims.