To kickoff the 2012 Whistleblower Summit: Civil and Human Rights Conference, Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) delivered words of appreciation to our nation’s unsung heroes, whistleblowers. Addressing whistleblowers who traveled across the country to attend the summit, Senator Grassley remarked, “These courageous whistleblowers have risked their careers, livelihood and personal well being. I thank all whistleblowers and those who support their cause…Today’s event highlights the uphill struggle that whistleblowers overcome.”
It is an uphill struggle with often no end in sight for federal employees. The gatekeepers of taxpayer dollars and last lines of defense against public health and safety abuses, federal workers remain uniquely vulnerable to retaliation when they report government abuses. Over the past decade, Congress has passed over 10 laws that provide best practice whistleblower rights for employees in the private sector. However, under the defunct Whistleblower Protection Act (WPA) federal employees are afforded second class rights.
Under current law, federal employees are not eligible for whistleblower protections if they:
- are not the first person who discloses given misconduct
- make a disclosure to a co-worker;
- make a disclosure to a supervisor;
- disclose the consequences of a policy decision;
- blow the whistle while carrying out job duties.
The uphill struggle for federal whistleblowers has increased exponentially since the last time the WPA was strengthened. According to a recent Merit Systems Protection Board study, federal whistleblowers were nine times more likely to be fired in 2010 compared to 1992.
There may be light at the end of this daunting tunnel. Recent unanimous Senate passage of S. 743, the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA), would overhaul the WPA, close administrative loopholes and extend protections to intelligence community whistleblowers. A pioneer of the WPEA, Senator Grassley expounded on this dying display of bipartisanship:
“I’m proud to report that one important bill, called the WPEA, which I have cosponsored with Senator Akaka of Hawaii, recently passed the Senate, and didn’t just pass the Senate, but passed by Unanimous Consent. This legislation makes a number of important changed to the WPA for federal employees.”
Last Congress the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and Administration came to an agreement on Title 2, which would strengthen whistleblower rights for national security employees who work within agency channels to report wrongdoing. However, days before Congress adjourned, the provision aroused unfounded objections by House Republicans that it would facilitate national security leaks. Senator Grassley corrected that misnomer at the Summit:
“Most importantly, [S. 743] provides federal whistleblower protection laws to members of the intelligence community for the very first time. This is a badly needed addition to protect a vulnerable but valuable group of civil servants. It provides protection, without harming national security. Coupled with a new process to challenge the suspensions of security clearances, it provides real protection for intelligence community employees.”
Enlisting his House colleagues and the whistleblower community to help see this bill to the finish line, the Senator continued:
“This important bill is now pending in the House. I know that Congressman Issa is a supporter of this legislation, and that the bill has been referred to the committee chairs, along with some others. I encourage all of you to work constructively with the House to make sure that this legislation becomes law. It would be a great victory for all whistleblowers to have this bill signed into law. Protections for federal employees need to be strengthened, and this bill does that.”
Those words of advice have not fallen on deaf ears within the whistleblower community. Bouncing back from the secret hold that blocked WPEA passage last Congress, GAP in collaboration with POGO and other members of the Make it Safe Coalition have been lobbying aggressively for the House to take action on the bill, which passed the Oversight and Government Reform (OGR) Committee unanimously last fall.
Senator Grassley, a recipient of the Pillar “Persons of Conscience" Award at Monday’s Summit, offered the following remarks:
“I am kind of a catalyst for those people who bring themselves and sometimes hurt themselves professionally that come forward that honestly deserve the honor, because they are the ones that are putting out he information that we need. There is no way that even if 535 members of congress, everyone of them doing some whistleblower protection and oversight work, there is no way that we know where the skeletons are buried. Its people like you that know where they are and you tell us to dig them up and you help us to dig them up and it’s a major source of the oversight work I do.”
Congressman Issa, Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is poised to heed his senior colleague’s advice and honor whistleblowers by providing them protections with teeth. It is his committee, after all, that relies most heavily on expert witness testimony from federal whistleblowers to expose government waste, fraud and abuse (notably the GSA Las Vegas and Fast and Furious scandals).
During Monday’s remarks, Senator Grassley also challenged the President to properly honor federal whistleblowers, through a rose garden ceremony:
“I’ve said it for many years that I’d like to see the president of the United States – not just president Obama but I’ve said this for four presidents that I’ve served under before him – I’d like to see a rose garden ceremony honoring whistleblowers. This would send the strongest possible message from the top of the executive branch of government to the lowest levels of the executive branch of government about the importance and value of whistleblowers, and of course we ought to be grateful for their efforts. It would be the perfect event for the president to sign a bill like the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.”
To help that vision come to fruition, and to learn more about efforts to pass the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, contact legislative campaign coordinator Shanna Devine at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202.457.0034 ext. 132.
Shanna Devine is Legislative Coordinator for the Government Accounatability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.