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GOP Senators Seek to Put Focus Back on VA Scandal

(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
(Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

A group of Republican senators hopes to return attention to accountability issues at the Veterans’ Affairs Department that have disappeared from the headlines.  

“The television cameras may have turned their focus elsewhere, but we will not,” Kansas GOP Sen. Jerry Moran said in a statement Thursday announcing he’s spearheading the Senate companion to a bill designed to give more power to the VA secretary to discipline senior executives engaged in improper practices.  

“Despite the passage of the Choice Act last year, the VA is still not doing enough to hold those responsible accountable for their corrupt behavior when treating our nation’s veterans,” Moran said, calling for dismantling of a “system that rewards mediocrity and failure.”  

He’s joined on the effort by Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Marco Rubio of Florida, according to an advance release obtained by CQ Roll Call. McCain has consistently said that more needs to be done in the aftermath of the scandal that originated out of the VA hospital in Phoenix.  

Among the changes, the bill would allow for senior employees to face reductions in their pensions after relevant criminal convictions, and an overhaul of the way the VA handles performance evaluations.  

“Last year, I was encouraged that my proposal authorizing the VA secretary to fire bad managers became law. Now we have to make it clear that if you’re a senior VA executive found guilty of criminal activity during your tenure, you should have no guarantee of a bonus or pension,” Rubio said in a statement.  

A companion measure from House Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., was introduced last week.  

The legislation comes as a response to Secretary Robert McDonald’s repeated assertion that he has no authority to claw back pensions earned over the course of an entire civil service career. Only a conviction of a high crime such as treason, VA officials have said, would negate the pension of a civil servant.  

Clawing back pensions for senior employees is one in a series of measures lawmakers, particularly House Republicans, have pushed in an effort to spur greater accountability at VA despite civil service protections. Miller has also introduced legislation that would authorize McDonald to make underperforming employees pay back their bonuses after VA officials described their authority to do so as “very limited.”  

An aide to Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., the new chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, did not have an immediate answer about the chairman’s potential support for the legislation, but given Miller’s leadership in the House, it would seem to have a path to advance.  

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