There’s no green light from Congress for firing authority for the head of the VA.
Senate Democrats on Thursday blocked a Republican attempt to take up a bipartisan House bill that would give the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs the authority to fire senior VA executives without the benefit of standard administrative procedures. A companion bill had already passed the House with a strong bipartisan majority of 390-30.
With the revelation in recent weeks that a number of VA hospitals have had extremely long waiting lists for veterans seeking appointments — and that in some cases, senior executives have worked to hide the excessive patient backlogs from the public — Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) sought unanimous consent to bypass the regular committee process and bring the House bill to the floor of the Senate for an immediate vote.
“People need to be held accountable,” Rubio said.
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, refused unanimous consent, effectively blocking a vote. Sanders said that while he agrees with some provisions of the bill, he wants to hold hearings on it, and to perhaps look at a wider set of VA reforms.
Republican leaders immediately blasted the Democrats for blocking the votes. (Although Sanders is an Independent, he caucuses with the Democrats.)
“As we head into the Memorial Day weekend, I am disappointed, and — frankly — shocked that Senate Democratic leaders chose to block legislation that would hold VA managers accountable,” House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “As we head home to honor the men and women who have sacrificed so much for our freedom, it’s fair to ask why Senate Democrats won’t stand up for more accountability?”
“I was surprised to see Senate Democrats block this important, bipartisan bill,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said in a statement. “There’s no reason for us not to pass it quickly here in the Senate. And the president should call for its passage right away, too.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid earlier in the day had signaled support for a different means of passing the measure — by attaching it to a pending VA spending bill. However, he indicated that he would defer to Sanders, the Veterans Affairs chairman.
In Sanders’ defense, there may be a number of good reasons not to give the VA Secretary expansive power to fire executives. The civil service system has a number of checks and balances to protect government employees. Many people view them as excessively biased in favor of government workers, and the result of unionization.
In fact, though, they are designed to prevent a de facto return to the spoils system, in which an incoming president’s administration would purge senior officials from the opposite party and install members of their own party.
Making it easy to fire senior federal executives, who are expected to be non-partisan in their work, would make it possible for future VA heads to remake the agency in their own ideological mode.
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