The House voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to make it easier to fire senior Veterans Affairs officials involved in the healthcare scandal, just hours after President Barack Obama delivered a speech that failed to satisfy those looking to take quick action against the VA.
Members passed the VA Management Accountability Act in an easy 390-33 vote — the only “no” votes came from Democrats.
Passage of the bill is the latest domino to fall in the expanding healthcare scandal that has members of both parties fuming at the department. The VA recently admitted that long wait-times for health clinics contributed to the death of more than 40 veterans, and it later came out that the VA had known about these problems for years, but tried to cover up the problem.
In the face of calls for the resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, Obama’s White House speech fell flat on Wednesday for members who wanted to hear more. Obama essentially said he wanted to wait for an Inspector General report to come out, and indicated Shinseki would stick around to help fix the problem.
GOP leaders dismissed Obama’s remarks and said they would act today to start cleaning house at the VA.
“Despite repeated promises of accountability and change, the committee has received nothing but disturbing silence from the White House, and only one excuse after another from the Department of Veterans Affairs,” said House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Fla.). “The time is past due for us, as the House of Representatives, to take action.”
Shinseki already has the authority to fire VA officials, but Miller said the process is too slow.
“The current system is so calcified in bureaucratic red tape, that it’s easier for someone to get a bonus than it is to be given some type of discipline at the Department of Veterans Affairs,” he said. “The VA Management Accountability Act of 2014 would gives the secretary the authority to fire or to demote VA senior executive service or equivalent employees based on performance at any time.”
House bills are often opposed by Democrats, but in this case, two Democrats said the bill doesn’t go far enough. Rep Michael Michaud (D-Maine) said he supported the idea of turning the roughly 400 senior executive service workers into “at-will” employees.
But Michaud said he wished the bill also covered senior doctors and dentists, some of whom are thought to be part of the problem related to long wait times at VA clinics. Michaud said he hoped the House and Senate could add this language at a later point in the legislative process.
Another Democrat, Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), made an emotional speech on the floor in which he said Shinseki needs to be the first person fired in the scandal. Scott blamed Shinseki’s failed leadership for military suicides in a Georgia hospital, and said VA officials told members of Congress during a visit that there were no more suicides to report.
“And they told a damn lie!” Scott bellowed. “The very next day it was exposed there was another soldier that committed suicide, and they covered it up!”
The few Democrats who voted against the bill indicated they opposed the idea of speeding up the process of firing VA officials. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who often defends federal workers, said Congress was over-reacting to a situation about which members don’t have all the information they need.
“This legislation is about a knee-jerk reaction to a bad situation painted with a very broad brush,” Hoyer said.
Miller reacted to Hoyer’s comments by saying it’s not a knee-jerk reaction, but the only reaction so far. “If you don’t do your job, you get fired!” he said of the bill.