The long-running debate has restarted over whether to limit disciplinary notice and appeal rights at the VA, and whether the department makes too little use of the powers it already has–a debate whose outcome is seen as setting precedent for other agencies, as well.
Hearings are being held this week in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal employment law in general, and in the Veterans Affairs Committees of both chambers, which will be hearing the priorities of veterans’ organizations that have been leading critics of the department.
Of particular focus will be whether the department’s senior executives have been sufficiently held accountable for the patient scheduling and care scandal that broke nearly three years ago. A law enacted in 2014 shortened their notice and appeal process, made the hearing officer’s decision final with no review by the full Merit Systems Protection Board and made the agency decision stand by default if no decision is reached by the deadline.
That law served as the model for proposals that afterward advanced in the House to apply similar restrictions to SES members government-wide, as well as to all VA employees. The bills stalled in the Senate, though, when Obama administration stopped using that authority in the face of a court challenge, after applying it in only a few cases. Afterward an alternative approach, allowing appeals by VA executives only to in-house panels, advanced in the House–also only to stall in the Senate and expire with the previous Congress.
The new VA Secretary, Dr. David Shulkin, has vowed to take disciplinary action for misconduct although the department has not been specific in setting standards for using existing authority or in asking Congress for new authority.
Several proposals reflecting bills considered in the House in the last Congress have been reintroduced. Another option, possibly only a short-term step, would be to reverse the Obama administration policy decision and again use the existing authority regarding executives.