On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio testified before the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on his “Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act" which would “reform the VA by allowing the secretary to dismiss bad employees, and ensure appropriate due process protections for whistleblowers.” Last week, Rubio teamed up with U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., to bring out the proposal. Rubio’s testimony is below:
To the ranking member and to all the members of the committee, thank you for allowing me to speak on Senate bill 1094, the Department of Veterans Affairs Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017.
I want to, at the outset say, I truly believe – I know that the majority of the employees at the VA are good, hard-working, competent and they serve our nation’s heroes admirably. They act in the best interest of veterans. They’re passionate about their work and many are veterans themselves. And so nothing in this bill is designed to punish them, stigmatize them in any way, hurt them. On the contrary it’s designed to reward those who work so hard.
But it’s necessary because the secretary of the Veteran’s Administration currently does not have the authority he needs to remove, demote, to suspend employees who are unwilling and/or unable to do their jobs, or employees engaged in misconduct or illegal activity.
Americans who don’t work for the federal government understand that if they violate their employer’s policy, they will face consequences. They may even lose their jobs.
And things should be no different at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Indeed, the federal employees charged with taking care of military men and women must be held to the highest standard.
The bipartisan legislation that you will consider today has been refined over the course of several years thanks to you, Mr. Chairman, to the ranking member, and to many others. And it includes real reforms aimed at fixing the problems that have plagued the department for many years. These reforms will ensure the best interests of our veterans come first at the VA.
To craft this legislation, we worked with a number of the Veteran Service Organizations represented here today -- including Paralyzed Veterans of America, The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Concerned Veterans of America, the Reserve Officer Association, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, American Veterans, the Military Officers Association of America, and several others.
The members of these organizations have borne the brunt of the VA’s mismanagement and failures. They understand the VA must be properly managed so it can provide timely, quality care to our veterans.
I thank these organizations and their members, not just for their service to our country and to their fellow men and women in uniform, but also for helping to inform our policy solutions.
Since the passage of the Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act in 2014, poor performance and misconduct by a few but significant number of VA employees has continued to come to light, and it is clear that there is a pervasive lack of accountability.
To list just a few examples, one VA employee was arrested and spent time in jail for armed robbery. Another employee was caught watching pornography on the job. In my home state of Florida, there have been several instances of prescription drugs being diverted, gone missing from VA facilities.
It’s terrible to think that some VA employees may have actively contributed to the opioid epidemic gripping our state and the country.
In all of these cases, the employees involved were ultimately allowed to keep their jobs, or resign with their benefits intact.
Other management failures at the VA include construction projects that are over budget and behind schedule, and billions of taxpayer dollars wasted through the illegal use of government purchase cards.
It is clear that under existing civil service rules and pressure from unions and others, VA leaders have not been able to hold individuals accountable for their actions. Over and over again, we’ve seen the VA attempt to take disciplinary action against an employee, only to see the appeals process prove so complex, lengthy and lenient that real accountability was virtually impossible to achieve.
And so the bipartisan, commonsense provisions of the legislation that you will consider will put our veterans first by reforming the department’s broken civil service system, maintaining appropriate due process protections, and empowering whistleblowers to come forward without having to fear retaliation from bureaucrats who would rather sweep wrongdoing under the rug.
Last week, Secretary Shulkin appeared before the Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, where I asked him about this bill, and what he needs to ensure a capable workforce.
And he stated, “I wish today I could tell you I have the tools to do the right thing, to be able to remove those employees. I do not. So unfortunately, I need a new set of tools if I’m going to be held accountable for turning this system around and doing what we all want to do to serve veterans. So I thank you for introducing this bill, I think it’s necessary.”
Mr. Chairman, to the ranking member Senator Tester, to Senators Moran, Heller and Boozman --- thank you for your hard work and leadership on this bill, and for considering it today. I am hopeful we will see this bill signed into law soon, so that our veterans will be more likely to receive the quality health care they earned and deserve.
Thank you again Mr. Chairman for having me today, and I look forward to working with you, with your staff on the committee, and others, to move the bill forward.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was first elected to the Senate in 2010.