Opening Statement: Chairman Arrington
Today, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, chaired by Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-TX), held a hearing to examine union activities at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
You can view Chairman Arrington's opening remarks from today's hearing here:
Opening remarks as prepared for delivery:
Thank you Chairman Meadows and thank you all for being here with us today.
This is my first official hearing as Chairman of the VA Committee’s Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity and I am pleased to partner with Chairman Meadows and other members to discuss this very important issue today.
I believe we can all agree that the mission of the Department of Veterans Affairs is to care for those who have borne the battle.
This is more than a government agency mission – this is a sacred honor and sacred responsibility for every VA employee and every American.
The men and women who have raised their right hand to serve and who have been willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, deserve nothing but the best service and care worthy of their commitment to our country.
Unfortunately, time and time again, situations have come to light where the care our veterans were receiving did not measure up to this standard of excellence.
Now here we are, almost 3 years later after the Phoenix and agency-wide waitlist scandal, where several veterans died waiting for care and yet the same problems still persist – veterans are still waiting way too long to receive an appointment, and veterans and their families are still waiting far too long to have their disability compensation claims adjudicated and their appeals decided upon.
In fact, VA’s own statistics indicate that there are over 45,000 vacancies within the Veterans’ Health Administration and the claims backlog for disability claims has recently increased by 33% and well over 460,000 appeals are pending.
These statistics are absolutely unacceptable, but they are the shameful reality of the current state of affairs at the VA.
I want to be clear - that the purpose of this hearing is not to completely discredit any use of official time within VA or across the Federal government at large – after all, it is allowed under current law.
We must, however, ask ourselves this question: Are we going to fulfill the mission of the VA and provide excellent service to our veterans or are we going to perpetuate a broken bureaucracy and a culture of self-service and unaccountability?
I am grateful to the Government Accountability Office for taking on this large task of looking at the use of official time at VA and how the Department is tracking its use as well as space at facilities used for union activities.
I am very troubled by their findings that the VA is not accurately or sufficiently tracking how much time employees are using on official time and that the data that we do have from VA is unreliable at best.
This concerns me on a number of levels.
Are people taking advantage of the system? I would conclude that most likely yes they are, because whether intentional or not, without an accountable system, there is no consistent means to track official time even if you wanted to – as the old saying goes - you can’t manage, what you can’t measure.
This issue brings me to something that concerns me even more. Not only are some individuals spending 100% of their working days doing union activities while receiving their tax-payer funded salaries, but some individuals are receiving their tax-payer funded salaries AND are not even being appropriately tracked for what they are doing with the time that they are not directly serving our veterans – doing the jobs they were hired to do.
As someone who has overseen multitudes of different staffs throughout my professional career, I cannot fathom an instance where I would be paying someone a tax-payer funded salary to do a job that I can’t even account for at the end of the day.
And what is even more troubling, is that this recent GAO report is not our first discovery that official time is not being tracked - this is not a new revelation.
There have been GAO studies done in 1979, 1981, and 1996 recommending that time spent on union activities needs to be better tracked. Yet, here we are, in 2017, still having the same conversation and GAO still making the same recommendations. This is insane!
I understand that both sides of the aisle are not going to always agree on to what extent unions should be involved or the power that they should hold in the Federal government. But I know we can all agree that the Department of Veterans Affairs should place the needs of our veterans above all else, and I’m very concerned that in this current environment – this is not the case.
We have doctors, nurses, medical assistants, addiction therapists, pharmacists, disability claims raters, senior raters, schedulers, social workers – and the list goes on – serving on official time, many of them on 100% official time and many making over six figures.
This means we have hundreds, if not thousands, of VA employees spending part –and sometimes all - of their working days serving the union instead of directly serving our veterans – again, the job they were hired to do.
I understand that union representatives are supposed to serve the employees of a VA facility whether it is through grievances or management relations, which in turn, one could argue, serves the overall facility’s function.
But you would be hard-pressed to convince me, or any reasonable person, that a physician making over $200,000 a year – paid for by the taxpayers – is best utilized sitting in an office dealing with union grievances for 100% of their working day rather than standing by a bedside providing care to a veteran.
The standard for official time is to use it on “representational work” that is “reasonable, necessary, and in the public’s interest.” I don’t believe the average American would see this as reasonable or in the public’s interest. In fact, I think they would be outraged!
I came to Congress, as we all did, to make a difference and to root out the real problems facing our country and find real solutions; and while this hearing today is not going to completely resolve all of the issues related to official time and union activities on the tax-payer’s dime, I think this discussion is necessary and pertinent as we continue to reform and fix the VA as a whole.
I thank the witnesses for being here and I look forward to your testimony.
Thank you Chairman Meadows and I yield back.