Mr. HALL of New York. Mr. Chairman, my amendment makes a small change to funding at the Department of Veterans Affairs. It would prohibit any funding to be spent for performance bonuses to senior level staff at the Department for fiscal year 2008. [Page: H6556]
This amendment would effectively mean no person in a Presidential-appointed position or Secretary-level position would receive a performance bonus during the coming fiscal year.
As I begin, let me state that the Department of Veterans Affairs has done a very good job in many areas for our Nation's veterans. In fact, its health care system is rated amongst the very best in the country, and the demand of veterans to get into the system speaks to the high level of care that it provides.
However, there remains a significant need for improvement in many areas. In the last 3 years, the VA has underestimated its health care budget by nearly $1 billion. It has roughly 600,000 veterans claims backlogged and veterans currently waiting an average of 177 days before receiving a decision on their claim.
Furthermore, according to a draft Inspector General's report, the VA is significantly overstating its success in getting patients timely appointments with VA doctors. The number of claims pending before the Department has steadily increased over the last 5 years. The current wait time is nearly 2 months longer than what Secretary Nicholson suggested in front of our Veterans Affairs Subcommittee would be acceptable to him, which was 125 days rather than the 177 currently being suffered by our
veterans. That is nearly a 2-month difference.
The Secretary himself called this ``unacceptable.'' However, the awards for bonuses last year ranged up to and included a number of members of high management at the VA of $33,000 in annual bonus. Their award bonuses were because of evaluations of outstanding and excellent. In fact, 87 percent of the senior staff were called ``outstanding'' or ``excellent'' in performance. One of those who got the $33,000 bonus had only served in his position from February 2006 until September 2006. So an outstanding
performance for 6 months earned that individual a $33,000 bonus; this at a time when our veterans are waiting 177 days average to have their claims for disability heard. And if they go to an appeal, it is an average of 2 years to wait for that appeal to be heard. This simply makes no sense. It is either unacceptable or it is outstanding, but it can't be both.
I am sure that most of the staff at the Department is dedicated and hardworking and the service they provided in often excellent, but in other areas it is unsatisfactory. Our veterans deserve accountability from the VA. Yet Secretary Nicholson himself has signed off on all of these bonuses, making only one change since 2004.
Veterans in my district and across the country were outraged when The Washington Post and the Army Times broke this story a couple of months ago. The VA Committee and the Subcommittee on Oversight invited Secretary Nicholson to testify this week and explain the bonuses. However, he decline and decided instead to send a substitute who admitted to knowing very little about the issue.
I understand that the chairman wants to study and best address this issue; and I would prefer that rather than eliminating bonuses altogether that we have them tied to performance, as bonuses should be. So if the chairman agrees, I would like to work with him and other Members on a separate piece of legislation to add accountability to the bonus process to the Department.
As in private industry, bonuses at the VA should be tied to performance, and I believe all of us want to see that happen, want to see the backlog reduced, and want to see our veterans get their claims processed promptly.
Mr. Chairman, I yield to the chairman.
Mr. EDWARDS. Mr. Chairman, I want to thank Mr. Hall for his strong leadership; first, on trying to see that this Congress, which we are going to do in this bill, provides the funding to reduce the terrible backlog of veterans cases pending. As he mentioned, there are over 400,000-plus veterans waiting for their cases to be considered.
And, secondly, for bringing to the attention of the Congress the problems raised by the bonuses given to a number of VA employees at a time when so many veterans are waiting for their benefits.
I thank the gentleman for agreeing to withdraw the amendment. We have every intention of working with him and the Veterans' Affairs Committee on which he serves as a subcommittee chairman to address the inequities of this situation.
Mr. BUYER. Mr. Chairman, reserving the right to object, this amendment is either ill-conceived or politically conceived in that the Deputy Secretary is the gentleman who came to the committee to testify, and that was by agreement at the committee.
So to say that the administration sent someone who was uninformed is not a good way to address this to our colleagues.
That was by agreement of the committee, and it was the Deputy Secretary of the VA who came in and who testified, and as a matter of fact, his testimony, that I will share with all my colleagues, is that he testified just last week during the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on the SEC bonuses, at which the author of this amendment was present and he said, by statute, senior executive presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed appointees are not eligible for performance bonuses.
Did you hear that? They're not eligible for bonuses. So what we have here is, the gentleman's brought an amendment that is either redundant, multiplicitous or unnecessary.
With that, I withdraw my reservation of objection.