VA Committee Chair: Unions Have ‘Stranglehold’ Over VA Secretary

Rep. Jeff Miller says labor unions preventing accountability at agency

October 22, 2015

The chair of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs said Wednesday that unions have a "stranglehold" over VA Secretary Robert McDonald.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.) told the Washington Free Beacon in an interview that McDonald has refused to support legislation that would hold VA employees accountable for misconduct because of pressure from labor unions.

"There are a quarter of a million union members that work for the Department of Veterans Affairs. They have a stranglehold not only on the agency but the leadership there as well," Miller said when asked to explain why McDonald has not backed the VA Accountability Act of 2015, which was introduced by the Florida lawmaker in the House and passed with bipartisan support.

The legislation would give McDonald the authority to demote or fire a VA employee because of poor performance or misconduct. Miller called it "the only way" to instate transparency and accountability at the VA.

"That’s what the American people want," Miller said. "It just is so hard to be able to fire people and discipline them at the department. That’s why it is difficult for people like Secretary McDonald to be able to do his job because he, in fact, is hamstrung and is very limited in what he can do as far as discipline."

However, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the union representing most VA employees, has said that "every VA employee would become, in essence, an at-will employee with no effective due process rights" with the passage of Miller’s bill.

President Obama has also threatened to veto the legislation, arguing that it would create "a disparity in the treatment of one group of career civil servants," according to a statement released by the White House in July after the House approved the bill.

The Obama administration said that the bill would "remove important rights, protections, and incentives which are available to the vast majority of federal employees in other agencies across the government and are essential to ensure that Federal employees are afforded due process."

The president also said that the bill would prevent the VA from recruiting and maintaining "qualified" employees.

"I can’t believe that a person who is the President of the United States would say that because people can be fired for not doing their jobs or manipulating records or data, that that would prevent them from hiring other individuals," Miller said Wednesday.

"I think it would encourage more people to come to work at VA because they’re looking for the very best people that are out there and they’re willing not just to shift the people around that can’t or won’t do their jobs, [but] get rid of them."

Miller’s comments came just one day after Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn) blocked an up-or-down vote on companion legislation brought forth by Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) in the Senate.

The American Federation of Government Employees praised Blumenthal, who introduced his own VA legislation months after Rubio.

"Senator Rubio’s bill hurts veterans and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. You simply can’t fire your way to a solution," AFGE national president J. David Cox Sr. said in a statement Wednesday.

"We have to clean house. We’re not talking about firing everybody," Miller said. "We’re talking about getting rid of the dead wood. There are thousands of individuals at the VA that do a great job. I know they’re frustrated that they’re working hard and sometimes [they have] to work double-time because there are people who can’t or won’t do their jobs."

Recent inspector general reports point to continuing problems at the VA’s network of health systems more than one year after Obama signed the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act of 2014 in the wake of the fake waitlist scandal that led the to deaths of dozens of veterans.

A recent VA-commissioned independent assessment also concluded that the Veterans Health Administration is in the midst of "crises in leadership and culture."

Polling released this week shows that the nation’s veterans and active duty military overwhelmingly name government bureaucracy and lack of accountability as the two largest sources of problems at the VA.

"Rep. Miller’s legislation would politicize the VA workforce, giving managers carte blanche authority to fire or demote employees who blow the whistle on wasteful and abusive practices that harm our veterans," AFGE told the Free Beacon in a statement Thursday. "This kind of political assault on the rights of VA workers is counterproductive to improving access to quality healthcare to our nation’s war heroes."