House Would Give Shinseki Increased Firing Power

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki

The House of Representatives is expected to vote Wednesday on a measure granting the secretary of Veterans Affairs new power to fire non-performing employees, including those in the senior executive service.

But VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, now under fire in part because of managers who allegedly ordered the manipulation of patient appointments, does not want the power.

As recently as May 15, even as senators grilled him over the growing number of alleged secret wait lists and past reports proving VA higher-ups were not being told the truth about appointment times, Shinseki insisted he "has the tools" to manage the department.

As proof of that, he told lawmakers that the VA removed about 3,000 employees, including senior executive service members, in both 2012 and 2013.

Lawmakers and groups representing millions of veterans, retirees and active-duty service members see Shinseki as unable to crack down. At least two groups, The American Legion and Concerned Veterans for America, have called for his resignation.

"While Secretary Shinseki already claims to have tools under current law and regulations to address the performance of SES [senior executive service] managers who have not met acceptable standards, at best they are not being effectively used," the heads of the Reserve Officers Association and the Reserve Enlisted Association wrote in a joint letter to the House Veterans Affairs Committee earlier this month.

The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Concerned Veterans of America, and AMVETS have also thrown their support behind the measure. The bill was filed by Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chairs the House veterans’ panel. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has introduced the bill in that chamber, as well.

If the bill passes and eventually becomes law, Shinseki will be able to remove anyone from the senior ranks after determining the employee’s performance warrants it, according to the Congressional Research Service. The secretary could also remove the employee from federal service, or transfer him to the general federal employment schedule, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Miller said "multiple VA Inspector General reports have linked many VA patient care problems to widespread mismanagement within VA facilities."

Government Accountability Office findings indicate that VA bonus pay has no clear link to performance, he said, yet "the [VA] has consistently defended its celebration of senior executives who presided over these events."

Some managers received bonuses up to $65,000, he said.

Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association that represents the federal government’s top executives, told Congress in March that Miller’s bill would be a step backward in terms of administering government.

She said that reforms made more than a century ago professionalized federal service by putting in a system that guaranteed fair treatment of civil service employees. Before then, she said, whatever political party came into power could hand out these senior positions as patronage.

Like Shinseki, she also said the system is in place to take care of bad managers.

"By law, senior executives must be removed from the SES if they receive two unsatisfactory ratings within five consecutive years or two less than fully successful ratings within three consecutive years," she said.

Miller and other advocates of his legislation, however, have made the case that people in the chain are not always being truthful, enabling underperforming employees and even those who deliberately game the system, to stay on and even advance.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at

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