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The Real VA Problem

Jun 9, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 37 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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The Department of Veterans Affairs has admitted that 23 deaths are linked to “secret waiting lists” for health care and other malfeasance and mismanagement at the agency, though the actual total is probably significantly higher. So far, dozens of veterans have lost their lives. Not a single VA official responsible for this tragedy has lost his job. In a more functional political culture, the VA scandal would be a clarion call for civil service reform.

VA Seal

Despite long-running problems, the VA has fired a grand total of three senior executives for performance in the last five years—one-fourth the federal average for terminations. Last year, the Office of Personnel Management disclosed that about 0.47 percent of the federal workforce was terminated for cause, considerably below the 3 percent fired in the private sector. In 2011, USA Today reported that in at least 15 federal agencies, employees were more likely to die of natural causes than be terminated in any given year. It’s not uncommon for federal agencies that employ thousands of people to go an entire year without firing a single employee. Meanwhile, the average federal employee made $126,141 in pay and benefits in 2012, more than double the private sector average. 

On an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 390-33, the House of Representatives passed legislation last week that would give the VA greater authority to fire or demote senior executives for performance. The additional firing flexibility would apply only to the top 360 supervisors out of more than 340,000 employees at the VA. Even so, the bill has been blocked in the Senate by Vermont’s Bernie Sanders. “Some of us are old-fashioned enough to know that maybe folks in the Senate might want to know what is in the bill before we voted on it,” he said. It’s much more likely that Sanders and allied Democrats are so influenced by donations from powerful federal employee unions that, even in face of fatal negligence, they are going to the mat for a few hundred employees out of a federal workforce of more than two million.

A report in the Washington Examiner earlier this year demonstrated the quid pro quo. In 2008, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) endorsed Obama. Six months after his election and three years before their contract was to expire, the FAA suddenly renegotiated with the union. The new NATCA contract cost taxpayers an additional $669 million. The biggest spender in the 2012 election cycle was NATCA’s PAC, which gave $1.25 million to the Obama reelection PAC, Priorities USA.

So what can be done to fix this state of affairs? If federal employees are to be given jobs for life, they could work a little harder to earn them. The current probationary period for federal employees is one year. This could be doubled to two years to allow federal managers more opportunity to weed out problematic employees. Beyond that, managers need more discretion to dismiss employees for poor performance. 

Union activities could also be curtailed. Stopping tax dollars from finding their way into Democratic coffers—as they do most obviously when public employees’ union dues flow into the unions’ political contributions—is going to be a problem as long as public unions exist, but enforcing the Hatch Act vigorously would be a good start. And federal employees should not be able to work on union organizing on the taxpayer’s dime, as they have done for years. In 2012, the IRS alone spent $21.6 million compensating employees who were working on union activities, not on public jobs.

Finally, it’s time to reexamine whether some agencies should even have the right to collectively bargain. When the original federal labor agreement was hammered out, agencies such as the FBI and CIA were exempted from collective bargaining because of the political sensitivity of their work. Last year’s political targeting scandal at the IRS—which, again, has resulted in no firings—convincingly demonstrates there’s no reason to allow IRS employees to belong to the National Treasury Employees Union, which is actively engaged in electoral politics. As it happens, Rep. Cory Gardner of Colorado (now the Republican Senate candidate) proposed H.R. 2679 last year, legislation that would exclude the Internal Revenue Service from the relevant federal labor-management relations statute. 

As soon as Republicans take back the Senate in 2015, they should pass Gardner’s bill, the VA accountability legislation, and other sensible civil service reforms. Then the president will have to decide whether to veto the bill and continue protecting wealthy federal employees at the expense of taxpayers and veterans. 

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