House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, is throwing his support behind legislation that would give the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs the authority to fire underperforming executives.
But Boehner was clear during a question and answer period following a Thursday morning press conference on the bill that he does not believe VA Secretary Eric Shinseki should resign or be fired.
"I think the secretary needs to have more authority to manage his own department. It's as simple as that," Boehner said. "That's what this bill would do.
Boehner was joined by the bill's author, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who is introducing identical legislation in the Senate, as well as representatives from AMVETS, The American Legion, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and Concerned Veterans for America.
"By any measure the VA is failing [veterans] and their families," said Boehner said, citing problems with the disabilities claims backlog and preventable hospital deaths. "If you're presiding over a bureaucracy that's failing our veterans, you shouldn't be receiving bonuses. You should be gone.
The press conference with Boehner followed a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing where lawmakers pressed Deputy VA Secretary Sloan D. Gibson for details on several issues they have been tracking.
These include the VA's rehiring of a former employee who was involved in a motor vehicle accident in which another employee died. A government review of the accident concluded the rehired employee had been intoxicated and driving a government truck when his colleague fell from it into traffic.
"Why isn't drinking and driving a government vehicle on business a fireable offense?" Miller asked.
Committee members also asked Sloan to identify the VA hospitals where 10 veterans had died because of delays or oversights. The VA has so far only named two hospitals where nine vets had die – six in Columbia, S.C., and three in Augusta, Ga.
Sloan told the lawmakers he did not have the information but would get back them.
Miller has repeatedly slammed the VA for awarding bonuses to managers of VA medical centers linked to patient deaths, exposures of patients to HIV, and delayed medical consultations that led to serious injury or death for veteran patients.
With Thursday's press conference Miller is hoping to crank up the heat on what he calls the VA's lack of accountability. In recent months he has been chronicling on his House website requests for information that he has submitted to the VA that have gone unanswered.
More recently he has begun listing instances in which the VA has not responded to media requests for information.
Miller told Military.com after the press conference that he believes executives at all federal departments and agencies operate under the same policies as the VA's. He also conceded that his proposed legislation could be seen as a threat to managers across government, including those in the Senior Executive Service.
"Again these are very high level individuals, very well paid individuals," he said. "They should be afforded solid protections in the workplace, but the secretary should have the ability to fire them and not give them bonuses ... It's easier to get a bonus at the [VA] than it is to get fired."
Rubio said all Americans expect government to be accountable and effective.
Peter Hegseth, chief executive officer of Concerned Veterans for America, said millions of veterans "feel like second class citizens" because of the way they've been treated by the VA. They file claims and wait unacceptably long times, ask for a mental health appointment and are told to wait months, or call hot lines only to be put on hold for an hour, he said.
"It's unacceptable and we believe it's time for transparency," he said.
Louis Celli, legislative director for The American Legion, said his organization "is a partner with VA and has a vested interest in making sure it operates effectively and efficiently," he said.
The Legion supports the bills filed by Miller and Rubio, he said, just as it supports the VA and Shinseki.
"The American Legion was here when the VA was created," Celli said. "We've seen 23 veterans appointed as secretary and we'll be here for the next 23."
No Democrat lawmakers took part in the press conference, but Miller said he does have bipartisan support.
"We're still talking with them about issues," Miller said. "There are some concerns they have and were trying to work our way through it, because we really want to see this thing through, because our committee is probably the most bipartisan committee in the House."
-- Bryant Jordan can be reach at firstname.lastname@example.org