President Trump on Friday signed Veterans Affairs reform legislation meant to protect whistleblowers while making it easier to fire problematic employees at the department.
The Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act passed by Congress earlier this month streamlines the process to remove, demote, or suspend VA employees for poor performance or misconduct. In addition, it authorizes the VA secretary to recoup any bonuses awarded to employees who have acted improperly.
“Veterans have fulfilled their duty to this nation and now, we must fulfill our duty to them,” Trump said. “So to every veteran who is here with us today, I just want to say two very simple words, thank you.”
Under the new law, protections for whistleblowers will be expanded and the VA will be prevented from dismissing an employee who has an open complaint against the department.
The bill was prompted by the 2014 scandal at the Phoenix medical center where patients died while waiting for health care.
“What happened was a national disgrace and yet, some of the employees involved in these scandals remained on the payrolls,” Trump said. “Outdated laws kept the government from holding those who failed our veterans accountable.”
On the campaign trail, Trump called the VA, the government’s second-largest department, the “most corrupt” and “most incompetently run agency in the United States.”
The legislation helps Trump follow through on a 2016 campaign promise. He said at the signing that the law represents one of the biggest reforms to the VA in a generation and promised even more changes – “until the job is done.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs handles three major categories for America's vets: medical care, benefits and burials/memorials.
The law marks the second time Congress has tried to change the disciplinary process at the VA. In 2014, the Choice Act was passed and tried to cut senior executives’ rights to appeal discipline to the Merit Systems Protection Board. However, a court ruled that it was unconstitutional and violated the Constitution’s appointments clause.
Ahead of the signing, Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative advocacy group, hailed the legislation as a positive step forward in a “new era of accountability, customer focus, and integrity at the department.”
The measure passed the House by a 368-55 vote earlier this month. It passed the Senate by a unanimous voice vote.
But not everyone is on board with the changes.
Public service employee unions opposed the legislation.
American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox Sr. accused the lawmakers of subjecting VA employees to a "witch hunt."
During a Senate panel in May, he said that there were already tools in place to address problem employees.
"When poor performers are not dealt with it is not because the civil service laws or procedures are too difficult to utilize. It is because managers do not want to put forward the effort to properly document poor performance so that they can remove or demote these people," Cox said.