Obama statement concerns whistleblower advocates, but will it have much impact?

Joe Davidson
Columnist January 7, 2013

Whistleblower advocates often view President Obama as a friend, but that doesn’t mean they always see eye to eye.

Obama gave an unwelcome New Year’s surprise to advocates Thursday when he said provisions in a Pentagon authorizing law could “interfere with my authority to manage and direct executive branch officials.”

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

The president’s comments were part of a signing statement on the National Defense Authorization Act. The law provides increased whistleblower protections for defense contractors. It also provides other government contractors and grantees similar whistleblower protections in a four-year pilot program.

Advocates have praised many Obama administration whistleblower initiatives, including a revitalized Office of Special Counsel, which enforces the relevant laws, and White House support for broad whistleblower protections. Yet the administration also has used the Espionage Act to prosecute federal employees who advocates consider whistleblowers but the Justice Department views as leakers of confidential information. And the Food and Drug Administration has been criticized for using electronic surveillance to spy on the personal e-mail accounts of whistleblowers.

The Defense law prohibits reprisals against those who report wrongdoing to Congress (and some other places, such as the offices of inspectors general).

Obama said he will interpret the law “to direct the heads of executive departments to supervise, control, and correct employees’ communications with the Congress in cases where such communications would be unlawful or would reveal information that is properly privileged or otherwise confidential.”

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a sponsor of the whistleblower protections, said she “was truly stunned,” by the president’s statement. “I’m really dumbfounded by it,” she said, because she had previously heard no objections from the White House. A news release from her office said the president’s statement “would make ineffective language” meant to protect whistleblowers.

Some advocates disagree with that, but they nonetheless don’t like Obama’s language.

“Congress did the right thing and passed these protections for contractor and grantee employees to save taxpayer dollars and increase government accountability,” said Angela Canterbury, public policy director for the Project On Government Oversight. “It may not have been his intent, but with this signing statement, the president appears to be thumbing his nose at Congress, whistleblowers, and taxpayers.”

It remains to be seen if implementation of the statement will be that serious.

Stan Soloway, president and chief executive of the Professional Services Council, which represents contractors, said that it “likely won’t have a real impact on the implementation of the provision.”

The administration, he said, is less concerned with the whistleblower protections “than it is with giving whistleblowers the right or authority to report directly, even exclusively, to Congress, thus bypassing the agency.”

Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, called the White House statement “mere background noise that repeats timeless government boilerplate about executive branch powers.”

He cautioned, however, that the statement’s “rhetorical fluff . . . could create a chilling effect.”

New subcommittee head

The new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce, U.S. Postal Service and the census is Rep. Blake Farenthold, a conservative Republican from Corpus Christi, Tex.

His step-grandmother was Frances “Sissy” Farenthold, a liberal Democrat who served in the state House.

A lawyer and former radio talk show host, Farenthold is in his second term. He also is the founder of a computer consulting and Web design firm. He narrowly won his congressional race in 2010 but had a much easier time last year, thanks to redistricting. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) estimates there are several thousand federal civilian employees in his district, including those at the Social Security Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense facilities.

In a statement to the Federal Diary, Farenthold said: “In these tough times everyone needs to work both smarter and harder to get the job done in a cost-effective manner. I look forward to continuing my role as a watchdog and advocate for creating a more efficient, accountable and affordable federal government, and getting it done in a timely manner. The federal workforce, the private sector and the American people deserve more certainty from government.”

Federal workforce organizations do not rate Farenthold, a member of the Tea Party Caucus, highly. Based on congressional votes important to those organizations, Farenthold voted with the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association 20 percent of the time over the last two years; with Federally Employed Women 30 percent in 2011 and 20 percent in 2012; with AFGE 4 percent in 2011; and with the National Treasury Employees Union zero percent in 2011 and 2012.

A chairperson has not been announced for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee overseeing the federal workforce.

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

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