The Senate has passed S-1094, aimed at short-cutting the disciplinary and appeals process at the VA, a breakthrough in a long-running effort that, while targeting only that department, is widely seen as a precedent for a bid to make similar changes government-wide.
The House earlier passed a largely similar bill (HR-1259), putting the two chambers close to a final agreement on a wide-ranging response to the patient scheduling and care scandal that is now three years old. Policies targeting only senior executives there had been enacted in 2014, but the Obama administration had stopped enforcing them in the face of a lawsuit, and several attempts by the House to apply changes more broadly had died in the Senate.
The VA under President Trump has repeatedly called on Congress to pass such a bill, which unlike prior versions has bipartisan support in the Senate–despite opposition from many Democrats and federal employee unions and other organizations who assert that it undercuts employee due process rights. The next step is a House-Senate conference.
Employees would be put on unpaid leave starting with notice of a firing or suspension, and any reduction in pay due to a demotion also would start immediately. The period of notice, response and final decision would be shortened to 15 days–the response period could be no more than seven days.
For senior executives, appeals would go to an internal agency review board, not to the MSPB. A decision would be issued within 21 days; it would be appealable to federal court but a court could overturn it only on a finding that the VA was arbitrary in its action.
Other employees would be subject to the same shortened notice, response and final decision time frames but they would retain rights to appeal to the MSPB. Those appeals would have to be filed within 10 days of the final agency decision, the hearing officer would have 180 days to issue a ruling, and the agency would prevail if only “substantial” evidence–not the majority–supported its case. Union-negotiated grievance processes would have to follow the same policies.
Employees would retain the right to appeal from a hearing officer to the three-member merit board, but the same lower standard of evidence would apply there as well and neither the hearing officer nor the board could lessen the agency’s choice of penalty. Further appeal to federal court would still be allowed.
The measure also would: allow the department to rescind cash awards or relocation incentives if it later deems them improper due to fraud or malfeasance by the employee, and reduce the retirement benefits of an SES member convicted of a job-related felony. Certain appeal rights would apply in those cases.
The Senate meanwhile has passed S-114, to require annual reports to Congress on performance awards and other cash payments paid to senior officials at the VA.