Congress approves federal whistleblower protections

Joe Davidson
Columnist November 14, 2012

It’s been a long time coming, but Congress has finally approved legislation to strengthen protections for federal whistleblowers.

With the Senate's bipartisan voice vote Tuesday, the measure, which advocates have been pushing for more than a decade, goes to President Obama for his signature. The legislation is designed to protect employees who expose government wrongdoing against retaliation by supervisors.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

The Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which will enforce the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA), praised the Senate’s action. In a statement, OSC said the legislation will:

●“Overturn court decisions that narrowed protections for government whistleblowers.”

●“Give whistleblower protections to employees who are not currently covered, including Transportation Security Administration officers.”

●“Restore the Office of Special Counsel’s ability to seek disciplinary actions against supervisors who retaliate.”

●“Hold agencies accountable for retaliatory investigations.”

Whistleblower advocates hailed congressional approval of the legislation.

“The WPEA closes many loopholes and upgrades protections for federal workers who blow the whistle on waste, fraud, abuse and illegality,” said Angela Canterbury, director of public policy for the Project On Government Oversight.

“We cannot thank longtime whistleblower and federal worker champion Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) enough for his tireless efforts. He is retiring after many years of service and the WPEA certainly will be remembered as one of his most admirable legacies.”

Akaka said it is important to “protect public servant whistleblowers who risk their careers to disclose waste, fraud and abuse. They make the federal government more effective and save taxpayers money.”

With the Senate’s action, “free speech rights for government employees never have been stronger,” said Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project.

But Devine added that the legislation is not all that advocates wanted.

“It would be dishonest to say our work is done, however, or to deny that government whistleblower rights are still second class compared to those in the private sector,” he said. “House Republicans blocked two cornerstones of the legislation: jury trials to enforce newly-enacted protections, and extension of free speech rights to national security workers making disclosures within agency channels.”

After Congress did not include whistleblower protections for national security and intelligence employees, Obama issued a Presidential Policy Directive prohibiting retaliation against them for exposing waste, fraud and abuse.

Contractor pay

A coalition of labor and public interest organizations is using the possibility of steep federal budget cuts to urge Congress to lower the cap on compensation for federal contractors working for non-defense agencies.

The coalition’s Nov. 13 letter to Capitol Hill is similar to one sent last month regarding Pentagon contractors. In the current letter to the top Democrats and Republicans on the Senate and House Appropriations subcommittees on financial services and general government, the organizations said “with budget cuts and sequestration looming, it is fiscally irresponsible to allow private contractors to charge escalating and exorbitant rates to the government.”

The cap should be lowered from $763,029 to $400,000, according to the coalition.

In response to the earlier call for a cap, the Professional Services Council (PSC), which represents contractors, said it opposes “this and other proposals that would drive critical skills away from the federal marketplace. PSC is no more supportive of caps on federal employee compensation than we are of this misguided proposal.”

Keep jobs in Maryland

Maryland’s senators are putting pressure on the Treasury Department to reverse plans to move 450 Federal Management Services (FMS) jobs from Hyattsville to West Virginia.

In a recent letter to Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, Democratic Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin said that the positions are important to Prince George’s County and that Treasury lacks the authority to move them.

“These are good middle-class jobs for hundreds of trained accountants who have spent their careers in Maryland,” the letter said. “It is expected that only 10% - 15% of all workers will actually be able to pick up and move their families to the communities where their job are moving. This move is a direct hit to the middle class in Prince George’s County, a middle class that FMS helped build.”

Furthermore, the department does not have needed congressional approval to move the jobs, according to the letter. When Treasury announced the planned move in August, other members of the Maryland delegation, including Reps. Donna F. Edwards, Steny H. Hoyer, Chris Van Hollen and Elijah E. Cummings, all Democrats, also announced their disapproval.

“We know we need a more frugal government,” the letter said. “We want to work with you in a way that doesn’t harm these employees. We are on the side of cost savings but not at the expense of these workers.”

A Treasury statement said the move is expected to save taxpayers $96 million over five years.

“We are sensitive to the impact this consolidation will have on employees at the facility and the community in Maryland,” said Treasury spokeswoman Suzanne Elio, “and we are prepared to take ample measures to assist all staff in the transition.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.

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