House approves VA bill, sending it to Trump

House approves VA bill, sending it to Trump
© Greg Nash

The House on Tuesday handily passed a bill making it easier to fire Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees or rescind their bonuses.

The Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act, which passed 368-55, would speed up how quickly VA Secretary David Shulkin could fire all employees no matter how senior, and allow the agency to rescind bonuses if an employee is convicted of a job-related felony.

“For far too long the failures of bad actors have tarnished the good name of all VA employees,” House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) said on the floor before the vote.

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“Unfortunately, despite the tireless efforts of our courageous whistleblowers, the extensive reporting on the lack of accountability by the media and the outrage of the American public, we still see far too many instances of VA employees not living up to the standards America.”

The bill was already approved by the Senate and now heads to the White House for President Trump’s signature.

Fifty-four of the "no" votes came from Democrats.

Under the legislation, Shulkin would be able to reprimand or fire senior executive employees as part of a 21-day process, while rank-and-file employees would only have up to 180 days to appeal their firing. The timelines are shorter than existing processes.

It would also allow the VA to take back an employee bonus or reduce a former employee's pension, a move senators argue will help make sure the department isn't on the hook to continue paying convicted employees.

The VA has been criticized for years for failing to quickly fire problematic employees, but lawmakers have been unable to decide how the VA secretary can best manage and quickly remove lackluster employees.

The department’s reputation was also tarnished following a wide-reaching scandal three years ago involving VA employees manipulating data to downplay how long veterans were waiting for medical appointments. Then-VA Secretary Eric ShinsekiEric ShinsekiDem demands Trump provide potential death toll for war with North Korea House approves VA bill, sending it to Trump Senate backs bill making it easier to fire VA employees MORE resigned as a result.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who oversees the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, applauded the bill’s passing, and said it would “ensure that the VA is accountable to our nation’s veterans.”

Isakson had introduced the bill along with Sens. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioRyan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Richard Gere welcomes lawmakers' words of support for Tibet Dem lawmaker gives McConnell's tax reform op-ed a failing grade MORE (R-Fla.) and Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterGOP and Dems bitterly divided by immigration Senate panel moves forward with bill to roll back Dodd-Frank GOP defeats Schumer bid to delay tax vote MORE (D-Mont.), ranking member of the committee, on May 11.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat Meghan McCain knocks Bannon: 'Who the hell are you' to criticize Romney? Dems demand Tillerson end State hiring freeze, consult with Congress MORE (R-Ariz.) — who co-sponsored the bill along with Isakson, Tester, Rubio and 27 other senators — also expressed his approval, calling it a step in the right direction.

“I applaud the House of Representatives for passing this much-needed legislation to enhance accountability and protect whistleblowers at the VA,” McCain said in a statement.

“It is unacceptable that more than three years after the scandal in care in Phoenix and around the country in which dozens of veterans died while waiting on non-existent lists, only one VA employee has been fired. Our legislation would correct the archaic and broken civil service system that has prevented the VA Secretary from removing bad actors, and strengthen protections for whistleblowers who are committed to the health and wellbeing of veterans.”

The bill now heads to Trump’s desk, where he is expected to sign it. Trump repeatedly vowed on the campaign trail that he would increase accountability at the VA and tweeted his support of the bill after the Senate passed it last week. 

Following the vote, Trump tweeted that the passage of the act "is GREAT news for veterans! I look forward to signing it!"