Friday, May 23, 2014

Congress's Response to the VA Scandal? Rolling Back Civil Service Protections.

On Wednesday, the House passed the Department of Veterans Affairs Management Accountability Act in response to the VA scandal. However, the bill does nothing to address systemic problems at the VA. Rather, it rolls back longstanding civil service protections.

The House Democratic leadership split on the bill. Hoyer, Van Hollen, and Becerra opposed it. Pelosi, Israel, and Wasserman Schultz supported it.

Here's Steny Hoyer on why he opposed the bill:
Mr. Speaker, I rise in opposition to this. I urge my Members to vote against it. I don't know if they will, but I urge them to do so. All of us in this body need to be for accountability. None of us in this body, however, ought to be for turning a civil service system into a patronage system. None of us ought to be for turning a civil service system, one of the best in the world, if not the best in the world, into a system which allows for no reason that needs to be articulated to turn senior executives into at-will employees. “I'm disappointed that this bill has been brought to the Floor with little notice and no markup in Committee. We talk about considered judgment. We talk about thoughtfulness. We talk about reading the bills. And then we bring them to the Floor without [a markup].
“We must ensure that those who serve our veterans in the VA system do so with accountability and oversight.  All of us are outraged at the allegations that have been made. Not one of us should step back and say we should not respond vigorously to the offenses that have allegedly taken place. Because, if the allegations are true, heads ought to roll. Period.
“But that's not what this legislation is about. This legislation is about a knee-jerk reaction to a bad situation painted with a very broad, broad brush – and undermining a system that can work, has worked, and has the mechanism to work. I cannot support this bill as written. I believe it opens the door to a slippery slope of undoing the careful civil service protections that have been in place for decades.
“This is about due process. Now due process is put under stress at critical times. Pursuing due process at times when there is no stress is not difficult. The test of a society is whether, at times of stress, it can follow due process and the law. This bill does not provide for that. Protections that have been put in place for decades to ensure politically appointed managers cannot fire non-political senior executives in federal service without proper cause. Neither party ought to be for that. The civil service reforms adopted decades ago were there for a purpose. As a result, Mr. Speaker, I rise in opposition and urge my colleagues to vote against this premature and not-thought-out piece of legislation.”
Nonetheless, the bill passed easily: 390 to 33. 228 Republicans and 162 Democrats voted for it. The only opposition came from 33 Democrats:

Xavier Becerra (CA-34)
Corinne Brown (FL-05)
Yvette Clarke (NY-09)
Jim Clyburn (SC-06)
John Dingell (MI-12)
Donna Edwards (MD-04)
Keith Ellison (MN-05)
Marcia Fudge (OH-11)
Luis Gutiérrez (IL-04)
Colleen Hanabusa (HI-01)
Alcee Hastings (FL-20)
Rush Holt (NJ-12)
Steny Hoyer (MD-05)
Hank Johnson (GA-04)
Marcy Kaptur (OH-09)
Barbara Lee (CA-13)
Jim McDermott (WA-07)
George Miller (CA-11)
Jim Moran (VA-08)
Jerry Nadler (NY-10)
Ed Pastor (AZ-07)
Donald Payne (NJ-10)
Mark Pocan (WI-02)
Linda Sánchez (CA-38)
John Sarbanes (MD-03)
Jan Schakowsky (IL-09)
Bobby Scott (VA-03)
Jose Serrano (NY-15)
Albio Sires (NJ-08)
Chris Van Hollen (MD-08)
Nydia Velázquez (NY-07)
Maxine Waters (CA-43)
Henry Waxman (CA-33)

The majority are members of the Progressive Caucus. There are also a few--like Hoyer, Van Hollen, and Hanabusa--who live in districts with a large number of federal workers and thus would be very concerned about rolling back civil service protections.

As noted, the bill does nothing to address any systemic problems. If there was any wrongdoing, people should be fired, but they should be fired after receiving due process. However, if Congress wanted to do something meaningful, they would be seeking to increase the funding of the VA and to modernize its operations. They could also stop starting aggressive wars.

Jonathan Cohn has an excellent piece in the New Republic about systemic problems behind the VA scandal:
In 2001, the General Accounting Office issued a report warning that wait times for medical services at VA clinics were excessive—and dangerous. Since that time, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have created a whole new generation of veterans. Advances in battlefield medicine have allowed more fighters to survive serious injuries, but that has also meant more returning home with wounds and disabilities, both physical and mental. Even though the total number of veterans has been declining, as the World War II generation passes on, the number of veterans seeking care has been increasing—placing further strains on the system. As my colleague Alec MacGillis has noted, the lawmakers screamingly most loudly right now seem blissfully unaware that the need for VA services is a direct by-product of wars they supported even more enthusiastically.
But demand alone doesn’t explain the VA's problems. Antiquated, sclerotic bureacracies are also part of the story. Veterans who wish to use VA health services must first apply. They also must get determinations about what kinds of disabilities they have—and how they got them. Those determinations are important: Veterans who lost limbs in battle, for example, get priority for services over those who served stateside without injury. The application files are still on paper, creating a huge backlog. The process also inflates wait times for actual medical services, since the disability determinations frequently require tests and checkups at VA medical facilities.
As a candidate in 2008, Obama talked about the toll these processes were taking on veterans. “It’s an outrage,” Obama said in one speech. “It’s a betrayal … of the ideals that we ask our troops to risk their lives for.” And the Administration has done a lot more than the tone of the current media frenzy might suggest. The transition from paper to electronic eligibility records is underway. That application backlog is down by 44 percent, at least according to official figures. Meanwhile, the Administration has eased eligibility for victims of Agent Orange and post-traumatic stress disorder—changes veterans advocates had sought for decades.
Those changes may have added to the system’s burden, creating the same kind of strain that took place in the 1990s. But Obama and allies like Bernie Sanders, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, have also fought for and secured substantial increases in the VA’s budget. The Administration has also presided over innovations, such as the opening of new outpatient clinics and the introduction of tele-medicine. These projects are expanding the VA’s reach at relatively low cost, while preserving its commitment to high-quality medicine. (The actual care at the VA remains top-notch, by most accounts, once people get it.) Oh, and a plan to reduce homelessness among veterans seems to be working. It's down by 24 percent.
The bill that passed will not address these problems. 

And if Congress really cared about the health of veterans, they could try not creating new ones. But yesterday, Congress shot down an amendment to sunset the 2001 AUMF. Instead, they (and that "they" is mostly, but not entirely, Republicans) voted for endless war.

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