WASHINGTON – U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., says he is willing to take on public sector unions so that Department of Veterans Affairs brass can more easily fire incompetent staffers.
Walz is more closely aligning with U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and the two mostly agree on accountability changes within the $160 billion federal government health care system for more than 4.5 million veterans.
Walz’s profile has risen on the committee, but his latest statements could put him at odds with unions that have been a strong ally in his campaigns. He rejects broader calls to gut civil service contracts, but said he is open to taking steps to boost VA accountability.
“Nothing bothers me more than to see an incompetent person there,” said Walz. “Whatever it takes to deliver the highest quality health care is the one we should choose. I don’t have an ideological dog that I’m tied to in this fight.”
Walz joined Miller on Wednesday for a discussion on the issue at the Brookings Institution, coming two days after Kimberly Graves, a top St. Paul VA administrator, refused to answer questions after being subpoenaed by the committee. Graves is still in her job in Minnesota, despite revelations from a federal inquiry that showed she created her job in St. Paul, transferred in with a much higher salary than warranted and racked up what investigators called excessive relocation costs.
Miller said he would like to see it easier for top VA people to fire poorly performing employees.
“That’s not to say everybody out there needs to be fired,” said Miller, who represents a congressional district in Florida. “It’s probably a small number … but it needs to be done.”
Walz said Graves and other administrators implicated in the inquiry “had protections above and beyond what they needed” and said that “I am certainly open to looking” at changes to make it easier to fire bad staffers.
The VA has slowed the rate of firings under Secretary Robert McDonald, who took over the post in July 2014.
According to PolitiFact and Government Executive, former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki fired 2,247 staffers in 2013 and 1,100 people last year. The government agency employs 340,000 people across the country.
Republicans have attempted to pass a large VA accountability overhaul in both chambers — something President Obama has already threatened to veto, saying it unfairly wipes out rights for public workers and civil servants.
On Wednesday, though, Miller signaled that he wanted to reach some bipartisan consensus. “There are different ways we look at it,” he said. “We should find a solution that we all agree with.”
“I’m pretty stubborn, but I’m not stubborn enough,” to hold up a reform measure that may also garner support of Democrats, Miller added.
Walz, of Mankato, points out that he was a teacher before being elected to Congress and frequently heard that teachers were impossible to fire — a statement he says was false.
“There will be those who don’t understand this issue who will see it as a proxy fight, let’s get rid of public sector unions,” Walz said. “That’s not going to fix the VA. Let’s be very clear. Getting rid of public sector unions is not going to fix the VA. If there are reforms that need to be done, I’m certainly willing to look at them.”
The local American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union officials in Minnesota did not return calls for comment.
Public sector union officials and political-action groups contributed $54,000 to Walz in the last campaign cycle, out of $1.5 million he raised overall.
The Graves case has irked the entire House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
The VA inspector general found Graves “inappropriately used her position of authority” to transfer herself in 2014 from an East Coast office where she was responsible for 16 regional offices in 14 states, to St. Paul, with a lesser workload. She retained her $173,949 salary and collected $129,467 in moving expenses to relocate to St. Paul.
House members unanimously voted to subpoena her and another colleague and force them to Washington to answer questions. When Graves showed up in front of the committee Monday night, she pleaded the Fifth Amendment, her constitutional right to avoid self-incrimination.
The case has been forwarded to federal prosecutors for possible criminal charges.
A VA spokesman in Washington also declined to comment on Miller and Walz’s comments Wednesday.
Walz said he’s heard from people in his First Congressional District who are disgusted with her behavior.
“The public turns on the TV, this woman took $129,000 to move to St. Paul? They say, ‘I called my brother and bought some Dominos, she could have done that,’ ” he said. “This irritates them.”
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