By Natalia Castro
Just three years ago, the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) was one of the most scandal-ridden agencies in the federal government. Today, the VA is working efficiently and effectively to follow through on their mission of caring for our nation’s veterans. The difference is simple, an administration invested in draining the swamp came together with a Congress willing to dismantle wasteful bureaucracies and finally hold employees accountable for their actions. Now, other agencies are ready to do the same, and they must restore American trust in the system.
Nearly four years ago, the VA was known for two things: harboring corrupt employees and providing veterans with inadequate care.
Under the Obama Administration, long wait times left veterans without care for months on end. A Government Accountability Office report from April 2016 found mismanagement and disorganization amongst VA employees caused new veterans to wait three to eight weeks for medical care; many patients failed to receive any care at all.
Despite this, a bureaucratic system which rewards longevity rather than efficiency, allowed the problems to persist. John Cooper, a spokesman for Concerned Veterans for America, told the Washington Times of April 2016, “It has taken the VA two years to propose firing three senior leaders responsible for the Phoenix VA scandal, which led to nearly 300 veteran dying waiting for care.”
But this is not the VA in 2018 because of concerted efforts from members of Congress and the current administration.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio led an initiative in the Senate to increase employee accountability through the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act. As Rubio explained in May 2017 to Fox News, “Today, there will be a hearing on my bill, the veterans accountability bill that will give the VA secretary the power to fire bad employees. People caught, for example, watching pornography while on the job, et cetera. And that bill is going to pass out of that committee, and I believe it’s going to pass out of the full Senate with bipartisan support and it will pass the House, it already has, and it will be headed to the president’s desk.”
And it did. And in the second half of 2017, the VA Accountability Report showed firings rose by 60 percent. Finally, the VA was able to hold workers accountable for failing veterans. Similarly, the VA has become the first agency to post information regarding disciplinary action online, while maintaining protections for whistleblowers.
But the VA is not the only agency known for bureaucratic waste and inefficiency. Across executive agencies, protectionist policies prevent disciplinary action from being brought against career employees. This creates negative workplace environments and allows inefficiencies to plague our entire government.
Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) introduced H.R. 559, The Modern Employment Reform, Improvement, and Transformation Act or MERIT Act of 2017. The legislation does several things to model federal employee dismissal after private sector employee dismissal:
- Increase agency management’s power to remove poor employees
- Expedite timelines; 7 – 21 days’ notice of action; simple presentation of cause with employees given opportunity to respond
- Retain employee right to appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board
- Cap appeal decision time at 30 days, after which the dismissal is upheld, unless declared otherwise
- Require that if the 3–day deadline is not met, MSPB must report to Congress and the oversight committees in the House and Senate and explain non-compliance
- Uphold whistleblower protections
The bill has over 50 co-sponsors and has recently caught the eye of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
In highlighting actions Republicans in Congress can take to ensure they hold the House and gain seats in the Senate, Speaker Gingrich said of the MERIT Act, “Implementing this program should be common sense to most Americans. Most people know that if they act inappropriately at work or ignore their duties, they are going to get fired. In fact, 89 percent of people who participated in a telephone town hall with Rep. Loudermilk agreed that government employees should be held to the same employment standards as they are at their jobs.”
Speaker Gingrich continued, “At the same time, this is a tough idea for Democrats to oppose. It would be very entertaining to see Democratic candidates nationwide try to explain to voters why federal employees, who are paid with taxpayer dollars, should receive extraordinary protection from being terminated for breaking rules and slacking off while they are supposed to be doing the people’s work.”
Government inefficiency does not just waste money; it risks lives. Congress and the President took a significant step in draining the swamp when they drained the VA of corrupt career employees, but now the mission must continue. Congress should continue the work of the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act by expanding it with the Rep. Loudermilk’s MERIT Act. It is a win-win situation for Republicans in Congress, they get to vote with the taxpayers and the opposition gets to show the people who they really stand with.
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Natalia Castro is a contributing editor at Americans for Limited Government.