In the battle between bureaucrats and veterans, the Obama administration stands with the bureaucrats. Last week the White House threatened to veto the VA Accountability Act, a bill that would moderately streamline the process for firing incompetent Department of Veterans Affairs employees. Under the terms of the act, the VA secretary can’t place employees on paid administrative leave for more than 14 days per year, employees’ initial-hire probationary period is extended to 18 months, and terminated employees have seven days to file an appeal to the Merit Systems Protection Board.
But these streamlined termination provisions — which still provide far more job protection than most private-sector employees enjoy — were too punitive for the president. Essentially claiming that the bill unfairly singled out VA employees, the president said it would create “a disparity in the treatment of one group of career civil servants” and would “dramatically impair VA’s ability to recruit top talent.”
Yet VA employees have singled themselves out, creating and perpetuating a bureaucratic culture that redefines incompetence. It’s hard to imagine a more dysfunctional bureaucracy. The Huffington Post recently reported that “238,000 of the 847,000 veterans with pending applications for VA health care have already died.” And that’s on top of coast-to-coast wait-time scandals that literally cost lives (at least 42 facilities have been investigated) and other scandals including sexual misconduct, drug rings run from VA facilities, and thefts from dying patients. VA employees even “fail to show up for work” at a rate “exceeding every other department and agency.”
To make matters worse, the VA has been significantly overpaying its staff:
The scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs is systematically overpaying clerks, administrators and other support staff, according to internal audits, draining tens of millions of dollars that could be used instead to ease the VA’s acute shortage of doctors and nurses.
The jobs of some 13,000 VA support staff have been flagged by auditors as potentially misclassified, in many cases resulting in inflated salaries that have gone uncorrected for as long as 14 years.
Against the backdrop of unrelenting scandals, how much job security do VA employees currently enjoy? This much: The VA recently claimed that it fired a grand total of 60 people in connection with the wait-time scandals that implicated dozens of its facilities. Yet this was manifestly untrue. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker gave the claim four Pinocchios:
Disciplinary actions for 75 employees have been proposed since June 3, 2014. . . . The proposed actions included removals, admonishment (a written letter of censure), reprimand (a stronger letter of censure), suspension of less than two weeks and probationary termination. . . . Of the 75 employees, only eight employees have actually been removed, as of February 13, 2015. Twenty-three cases were pending. Five employees resigned before a decision was made on their case. Others were demoted, were on probationary termination, had some other disciplinary action, or had no action taken at all.
Given the complexity of the federal civil-service system, including the built-in protections for incompetent workers, it’s easy to see why the VA has fired so few of its worst employees. At more than a dozen federal agencies — including the EPA — employees are more likely to die than be fired.
This reality hurts the morale of many of the VA’s most competent workers. There are few things more frustrating to the best employees than the continued, malignant influence of the worst. I recall a conversation with a fellow Army reservist who hated his career at the VA — in part because a colleague who routinely snorted cocaine in the facility’s parking lot destroyed the efficiency of an entire department. Yet he successfully resisted every attempt at meaningful discipline. His coke habit was deemed a “disability,” not misconduct.
Given these realities, one could put George Washington himself in charge of the VA, and it’s likely that the father of our country would throw his hands up in despair. However, when the American Federation of Government Employees wrote a letter against the bill, the administration’s opposition was virtually a foregone conclusion. After all, government unions represent a core Democratic constituency while veterans most assuredly do not.
It’s obvious that the current work rules — which provide a level of job security most Americans can scarcely imagine — have not, in fact, helped the VA recruit “top talent.” Unless, of course, the talents it’s looking for include swindling taxpayers, selling (and using) drugs, skipping work, and inventing new ways to conceal wait times. Protecting these employees will not reform the VA. Bureaucratic job security is not more important than veterans’ health.