WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump signed a bill into law Friday that will make it easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs to fire employees, part of a push to overhaul an agency that is struggling to serve millions of military vets.
“Our veterans have fulfilled their duty to our nation and now we must fulfill our duty to them,” Trump said during a White House ceremony. “To every veteran who is here with us today, I just want to say two very simple words: Thank you.”
Trump repeatedly promised during the election campaign to dismiss VA workers “who let our veterans down,” and he cast Friday’s bill signing as fulfillment of that promise.
“What happened was a national disgrace and yet some of the employees involved in these scandals remained on the payrolls,” Trump said. “Outdated laws kept the government from holding those who failed our veterans accountable. Today we are finally changing those laws.”
A member of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Plainview native Jodey Arrington is chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity. Representative from the 19th Congressional District of Texas, Arrington has been working on this bill, and other VA reform measures, since he began his first term in Congress.
Speaking in support of this bill from the floor of the House prior to its passage, Arrington said, “This legislation gives the secretary the tools he needs to hold his employees accountable for serving our veterans and to change the culture from one that tolerates mediocrity to one that expects excellence.”
The first-term Republication added, “These folks gave their very best to our country, and they deserve the very best from their country.”
The newly-signed law was prompted by a 2014 scandal at the Phoenix VA medical center, where some veterans died as they waited months for care. The VA is the second-largest department in the U.S. government, with more than 350,000 employees, and it is charged with providing health care and other services to military veterans.
Federal employee unions opposed the measure. VA Secretary David Shulkin, an Obama administration holdover, stood alongside Trump as the president jokingly suggested he’d have to invoke his reality TV catchphrase “You’re fired” if the reforms were not implemented.
The legislation, which many veterans’ groups supported, cleared the House last week by an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote of 368-55, replacing an earlier version that Democrats had criticized as overly unfair to employees. The Senate passed the bill by voice vote a week earlier.
Paul Rieckhoff, founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, applauded the move, saying, “In a nasty, partisan environment like we’ve never seen, veterans’ issues can be a unique area for Washington to unite in actually getting things done for ordinary Americans.”
The bill was a rare Trump initiative that received Democratic support. Montana Sen. Jon Tester said the bill “will protect whistleblowers from the threat of retaliation.”
The VA has been plagued for years by problems, including the 2014 scandal, where employees created secret lists to cover up delays in appointments. Critics say few employees are fired for malfeasance.