The ebb and flow of accountability measures proposed for the Department of Veterans Affairs saw another surge on July 5, as Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., introduced new legislation for the agency.

The VA Accountability First and Appeals Modernization Act of 2016 seeks to institute new strictures on the department following continued impasses that have snagged reform.

"The biggest obstacle standing in the way of VA reform is the department's pervasive lack of accountability among employees at all levels," Miller said in a statement. "Until this problem is fixed once and for all, long-term efforts to reform VA are doomed to fail."

The new bill follows a series of other reform measures, but Miller said he wants tougher legislation to correct issues resulting from a cadre of scandals that affected the agency.

The bill proposes a number of reform initiatives, including:

  • To put a cap on the firing process of rank-and-file VA employees at 77 days.
  • To remove the Merit Systems Protection Board from VA senior executives’ appeals process.
  • To increase whistleblower protections against retaliation.
  • To allow the VA secretary to reclaim bonuses and relocation expenses of employees accused of wrongdoing.
  • Allow for pension reductions for employees "convicted of felonies that influenced their job performance."

Following the patient-wait time scandals of 2014, VA reform has been a hotly contested issue between reform-minded legislators and federal employee unions seeking to protect due process rights. The result has been reform laws and administrative actions ensnared in court challenges or numerous, competing proposals jockeying for passage.

Last month, Attorney General Loretta Lynch declined to defend portions of the Veterans Access, Choice, and Accountability Act of 2014 in a lawsuit filed by a fired VA executive because the Department of Justice viewed them as unconstitutional.

A congressional aide familiar with Miller's bill said the proposal addresses the Lynch issue by establishing an appeals process that includes a Senior Executive Disciplinary Appeals Board made of VA employees.

The board would rule on appeals of VA firings, but the bill also allows the VA secretary to overturn a board decision. Any review following that decision would go to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

The bill also represents another shot from Miller to his reform pugilists, federal employee unions, who are likely to denigrate the measure.

J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said in a statement that the bill would inversely weaken whistleblower protections by reducing employee rights.

"Real accountability at the VA comes when frontline employees are empowered to speak out about issues with veterans' healthcare," he said. "Chipping away at vital due process rights leaves these employees more exposed to retaliatory acts, cutting off a vital feedback channel for improving veterans' care.

"Whistleblower protections can only do so much to right these wrongs, and the surest way to keep the VA accountable to veterans is stronger, not weaker due process rights."

AFGE has supported the competing Senate bill, the Veterans First Act.

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