February 25, 2009
Lawmakers are vowing to resurrect efforts to expand protections for federal whistleblowers after such a measure was yanked from the stimulus package.
“It is essential we ensure accountability and transparency in government in order to protect taxpayers,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said in a statement. He was chief sponsor of the rejected provision and has vowed to reintroduce it.
The House-backed stimulus provision would have protected all employees from reprisal for disclosing wrongdoing, including those who work at national security-related agencies, such as the FBI, Transportation Security Administration or intelligence agencies.
It also would have given employees who are retaliated against the right to jury trial if administrative bodies, such as the Merit Systems Protection Board, did not take corrective actions against their agencies within 180 days. Only provisions protecting state and local government employees were signed into the law.
Van Hollen pledged to reintroduce the stimulus provision as early as this week.
He blamed Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, for the provision’s demise during the conference on the stimulus bill, but a spokesman for Collins denies she killed the provision.
“During negotiations of the economic stimulus legislation … the decision was made by all negotiators — Democrats and Republicans — that … the significant differences between the House and Senate versions of this legislation should be ironed out by the appropriate committees,” spokesman Kevin Kelley said in a statement.
“Senator Collins has been a leading advocate in Congress for strengthened federal whistleblower protections,” Kelley said. He noted Collins introduced a bill to expand federal whistleblower protections that passed the Senate in the last Congress, but that bill differed from the language passed by the House and never advanced.
Collins’ bill did not include the right to jury trial when the MSPB process stalls, nor did it extend protections to national security and intelligence community personnel, a staff member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said. Collins is the committee’s ranking member.
The House stimulus provisions would have significantly altered how national security personnel, like intelligence agency employees, report wrongdoing that involves highly classified information, the staffer said. Intelligence community whistleblowers have their own procedures to blow the whistle to those with proper clearances to ensure information is protected. The House language would have allowed whistleblowing by those officials to people without the proper clearances, which could have posed a security risk.
Senators want to hold hearings exploring those issues before they approve legislation to afford those rights to federal employees, the committee staff member said.
Collins and Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, recently resubmitted the whistleblower bill that passed the Senate last year. The bill would:
• Protect employees for any disclosures of waste, fraud and abuse.
• Provide protections to Transportation Security Administration employees.
• Clarify that feds are protected when they disclose evidence of suppression of scientific or technical information.
• Prevent agencies from revoking an employee’s security clearance, enforcing a nondisclosure policy or investigating an employee in retaliation for a protected disclosure.
Promises of change
President Barack Obama pledged during the transition to enhance whistleblower protections for federal employees.
The transition Web site said federal employee whistleblowers are “the best source of information about waste, fraud and abuse in government” and pledged Obama would “strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud and abuse of authority in government.”
Further, “Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process,” the site proclaimed.