At a time when partisan anger is running high, even by Washington standards, President Trump is on the cusp of a rare bipartisan legislative victory with the passage of a bill to overhaul management practices at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The legislation, which he has pushed for and is expected to sign, makes it easier for the department to fire employees who fails to meet their job requirements while at the same time increasing protections for whistleblowers.
The bill was passed 368-55 by the House Tuesday, with majorities in both the Republican and Democratic caucuses. The Senate approved the bill last week on a voice vote. The bill went through changes during the legislative process to address objections from Senate Democrats who were not satisfied with the level of worker protections built into it.
Late Tuesday, Trump praised the bill on Twitter, writing, “The passage of the @DeptVetAffairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act is GREAT news for veterans! I look forward to signing it!”
The bipartisan agreement on the need to give the VA’s management the authority to remove underperforming employees is the product of years of reports about shoddy and even fraudulent recordkeeping, as well as veterans being forced to wait months and even years for medical care. Despite multiple initiatives meant to restructure the way the VA delivers care to veterans, problems at the agency have continued to surface.
As recently as April, an Inspector General’s report found that a VA hospital in the heart of Washington, D.C., was in such disarray that certain types of surgery were cancelled because of a widespread lack of supplies and that in emergency situations, nurses were spotted running through the building in search of critically needed equipment.
In a statement, members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee said that the difficulty of disciplining bad employees has contributed to the VA’s organizational failures.
“In the past several years, VA’s arcane civil service rules have hampered the department’s ability to dismiss an employee that engaged in an armed robbery; discipline a VA nurse that participated in a veteran’s surgery while intoxicated; and hold employees accountable for the continued failures to manage several major construction projects, including the new hospital in Aurora, Colorado, that is now several years and a billion dollars over budget,” the statement read.
President Trump made the VA’s woes a constant theme on the campaign trail and promised a major overhaul of its operations once he took office.
After months of making little progress on the major elements of their agenda, GOP leaders in Congress were plainly happy to take credit for a piece of legislation with broad support.
“Now we’re getting the veterans the kind of response and the kind of accountability they earned and deserved,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said at a press conference.
The response to the bill was largely positive from veterans groups, which have been agitating for an overhaul of the system for years.
Dan Caldwell, policy director of the Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative group that lobbies for veterans’ causes, said, “Veterans across the country can look forward to a new culture of accountability and integrity at the VA."
Groups representing government employees, however, opposed the bill, arguing that it strips too many protections away from all government workers in the name of punishing a relative few who engage in misconduct.