The pending change in law to restrict disciplinary appeals rights for employees at the VA–as well as to better protect them from retaliation for whistleblowing–is already raising questions regarding whether a similar initiative will next target another agency individually or the entire government.
The need for such changes has been debated for three years, since it was first revealed that some medical centers had produced records making it appear that veterans were being seen for care more promptly than actually was the case. That was quickly followed by complaints that the department did not do enough to discipline those responsible–particularly senior executives–and then that management retaliated against employees who made disclosures or cooperated with investigations.
A 2014 law short-cutting appeal rights for senior executives at the VA passed quickly and was seen from the outset as a precedent. However, follow-up proposals to extend the same policies to senior executives at other agencies, and to employees at the VA below those levels, stalled in the face of opposition from Democrats who argued that the plans were too restrictive of due process rights and union rights. The Obama administration had stopped using even the revised SES policies in the face of a court challenge, raising prospects that partisan deadlock would prevent any further changes.
However, the bill (S-1094) now awaiting President Trump’s signature gained enough support from Democrats to pass the Senate on a voice vote; in the House, 137 Democrats ultimately favored it compared with just 54 against (the Republican vote was 231-1). As with the 2014 law’s enactment with strong bipartisan support, that could serve as a signal of more to come.
One commonly raised argument for extending the changes is that there now will be a two-headed disciplinary system in a workforce where major personnel policies generally apply government-wide; with around 350,000 employees, the VA accounts for about one in six federal employees outside the intelligence agencies and the self-funding U.S. Postal Service. Also, having stricter policies at only the VA could convince current and potential employees to work elsewhere, hurting that department’s mission, in this view.
However, such a move most likely would have to be made in the context of an overall civil service reform effort that would involve proposals such as pay for performance and limiting union rights that are generally favored by Republicans but opposed by Democrats.
Another course could be to focus next on the next department or agency hit with a scandal. The outcome could depend on the nature of the events, as well as whether there is an impact from outside forces that normally aren’t felt in federal workplace issues. In the case of the VA, the demand by veterans organizations for a strong response to the scandal has been one of the major factors in the drive to strengthen the department’s hand in disciplinary matters.