The House voted Tuesday to make it easier for the secretary of Veterans Affairs to fast-track the firing of federal employees for misconduct, sending the bill to the White House where President Donald Trump is expected to sign it into law this week.
House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe (R., Tenn.) lauded the bill's passage as a "promise kept to our nation's heroes."
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"The single biggest success in today's passage is that the veterans win," Roe told the Washington Free Beacon in an interview. "The purpose of the VA is to provide care for veterans, and without question your staff is the most important asset here. You have to have a way to terminate people when they aren't performing and this gives the VA secretary the ability to do that while protecting the employee's due process rights."
Trump last week called for House members to deliver the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act to his desk for a signature after the bill sailed through the Senate with bipartisan support.
The measure is expected to be enacted into law this week, more than three years after the 2014 scandal at the Phoenix VA medical center where dozens of veterans died while waiting for care.
VA Secretary David Shulkin has called on lawmakers for months to grant him greater authority over the firing of employees who are guilty of misconduct. Shulkin's case received a boost of urgency in March after the department struggled to fire a VA worker who was caught watching porn while with a patient.
The version that will land on the president's desk is the result of a bipartisan compromise struck by Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson (R., Ga.) and ranking member Jon Tester (D., Mont.), along with Sens. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) and Bill Nelson (D., Fla.).
The bill will lower the standard of evidence needed for managers to reprimand or terminate employees for misconduct within the agency. Shulkin will be granted the authority to fire senior executives over a 21-day grievance process—a nine-day reduction from current law.
The legislation will also extend the appeals period for rank-and-file employees placed on administrative leave to 180 days while enabling the department to withhold pay from those workers who are awaiting a case determination. Employees convicted of a felony related to their job will have their pensions reduced and bonuses stripped.
It also extends whistleblower protections and codifies into law the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection that Trump set up in May through executive order.
The House has passed a series of VA accountability bills over the past three years, but Senate Republicans struggled to court enough Democrats to squeak the legislation through the chamber. Democrats complained the GOP-led House bills cut short the appeals process for workers facing termination, violating employee protections.
Roe said the Senate's decision to extend the appeals process for rank-and-file employees is what ultimately led to overwhelming support among Democrats in the House.
"This was an effort from both sides of the aisle and both bodies in the Congress that was actually brought to fruition," he said. "This will be great for veterans and it will improve the morale in the VA when the secretary gets the ability to quickly terminate underperforming employees."