Stated former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, in referencing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's previous role as an advisor to Freddie Mac:In last Thursday's Republican presidential debate, it was refreshing to see a candidate use the term "whistleblower" as the standard for accountability and conflicts of interest.
We should have had a whistleblower, not a horn tooter.
Presidential hopeful Romney might be interested in knowing that Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae employees now have access to, arguably, the strongest whistleblower disclosure unit in the books under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform & Consumer Protection Act's SEC whistleblower program. Of course, Romney has stated his desire to repeal Dodd-Frank, noting (however) "some revisions make sense."
While those Fannie and Freddie employees can now shout from the rooftops about financial misconduct, however, federal employees likely would be thrown from the rooftops – risking professional suicide if they disclose wasteful government spending or cover-ups. The Whistleblower Protection Act, the primary federal whistleblower statute, remains a would-be whistleblower's best reason to turn a blind eye to government abuse. Since the law's last strengthening (1994), federal whistleblowers have endured years of bad case law and hostile judicial review.
Last Congress the WPA was on the verge of being overhauled through the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA), until a procedural loophole allowed one senator to place a "secret hold" on the legislation just hours before adjournment.
President Obama's State of the Union last week alluded to safeguarding taxpayer dollars when he stated:
We've all paid the price for lenders who sold mortgages to people who couldn't afford them, and buyers who knew they couldn't afford them. That's why we need smart regulations to prevent irresponsible behavior. Rules to prevent financial fraud, or toxic dumping, or faulty medical devices, don't destroy the free market. They make the free market work better.
It is time for the administration to put its money where its mouth is. Last fall in the Open Government Partnership National Action Plan, the Obama administration said it would not be passive if Congress fails to move on the WPEA, stating, "Statutory reform is preferable, but if Congress remains deadlocked, the Administration will explore options for utilizing executive branch authority to strengthen and expand whistleblower protections."
At a congressional transparency caucus, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, indicate that would not be necessary, stating: "[M]y intention is to move [the WPEA] before the end of the year. And if it isn't moved for any reason, to have an in-my-own-party public display ... we have to have whistleblower[s] ... it is something that I was deeply disappointed we almost but didn't quite get through in the last Congress. We will get it through in this Congress." Rep. Issa vowed to go to the mat for national security whistleblower rights as well, which were the subject of red herring Wikileaks arguments in the previous Congress.
To Rep. Issa's credit, the WPEA did pass shortly thereafter by a unanimous 35-0 committee vote, with the national security protections intact. A few big moves were made, including coverage for federal contractors – an additional 10 million employees! However, in the House bill, contractor employees have full court access while their federal counterparts were denied jury trials. Conversely, the Senate bill, passed unanimously by the Homeland Security Committee last summer, offers jury trial access but does not extend coverage to federal contractors. Neither bill has moved further, despite both Senate and House committees unanimously approving them before Thanksgiving.
While variations need to be hammered out between chambers, support for this reform is unprecedented: all portions of the WPEA have been vetted extensively over the past decade. Corporate whistleblower protections have become a cornerstone of all recent regulatory legislation, including Dodd-Frank, Consumer Protection Safety Act, FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, the 9/11 law to strengthen transportation security, and the Affordable Care Act health reform law. The contractor whistleblower provisions already have been tested through the Stimulus Law, which is effectively protecting taxpayer stimulus funds. The WPEA also has passed both chambers over half a dozen times. What are we waiting for?
With the economy as the number one issue in today's polls, it would be advantageous for Republican presidential nominees to replace campaign rhetoric with a real solution – enfranchise the nation's most effective defense against waste fraud and abuse: our citizens on the front lines who are eye-witnesses to fraud, waste and abuse, and who risks their careers for values the Republican candidates campaign around. Ron Paul has a head start over his rivals, having publicly endorsed whistleblowers throughout his presidential campaign, including the WPEA. But the rest of the candidates have been silent about whistleblowing, except when attacking each other.
What are they waiting for? How presidential and congressional elected officials and candidates handle this issue should be a litmus test for voters' trust of their rhetoric attacking big government.
Shanna Devine is Legislative Campaign Coordinator for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.