The House chamber was almost empty Friday morning when the acting speaker turned to two pieces of legislation important to the federal workforce.
Both the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act and a measure delaying the online posting of personal financial information of certain federal employees were up for consideration. Both had been controversial in their own way, and both had been the subject of strong lobbying by employee interest groups.
And both bills where approved without so much as a yea or nay. That’s possible with a legislative procedure known as unanimous consent.
The House was gaveled to order at 11 a.m., according to the House clerk’s office, by Rep. John Abney Culberson (R-Tex.), who was at the speaker’s podium. At 11:05 a.m., Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) asked for unanimous consent to approve the measure delaying implementation of the Stock Act provision. Hearing no objections, Culberson declared the bill passed.
Immediately after, similar action was taken on the whistleblower bill. At 11:11 a.m., the session was adjourned.
“These are very important measures for federal employees,” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), one of the few members in the room, said in an interview. “I was very pleased that we could work out these measures.”
Although this isn’t the way lawmaking is described in junior high civics books, it does allow Congress to act even when most of its members are off doing other things. Unanimous consent works when no one from either party raises an objection to legislation. The measures are cleared by both parties in the House and the Senate. “Any one person can object and bring this all to a halt,” Van Hollen said.
The whistleblower bill now goes to the Senate, where approval is expected during the lame duck session in November. This legislation would strengthen protections for federal employees who report waste, fraud and abuse from retaliation by supervisors.
Advocates of the legislation have been fighting for more than a decade to get congressional approval. Now they are very close, although the bill lacks key provisions supporters long demanded.
They wanted members of the intelligence community, such as CIA officers, to be covered by the whistleblower law. But opposition on Capitol Hill and among intelligence and national security agencies thwarted that.
Advocates also wanted jury trials for whistleblowers who sue agencies in retaliation cases. That didn’t make the final cut, either.
“Demands by a few key Republicans removed provisions for jury trials that Congress has provided for nearly all corporate whistleblowers, and national security reforms to prevent classified leaks through protection for those who act responsibly within government’s institutional checks and balances,” said Tom Devine, legal director of the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower advocacy organization.
But the intelligence community and jury trial provisions aren’t going away just because they are not in the current bill. The legislative fight for those provisions will continue, and Devine called on President Obama to use his executive authority to provide greater protections for national security whistleblowers.
“Because this bill excludes intelligence community workers, now is the time for the President to honor his promise and provide an effective, responsible channel for reporting waste, fraud and abuse,” Devine said.
That “promise,” however, allows for wiggle room.
The administration’s “National Action Plan” for transparency and open government, issued in September 2011, says that “if Congress remains deadlocked, the Administration will explore options for utilizing executive branch authority to strengthen and expand whistleblower protections.”
Exploring options is not the same as making a promise, but Devine plans to press the administration as if it were.
In one form or another, the effort to get additional protections for intelligence community and national security whistleblowers will be revisited after the current bill becomes law.
Also likely to get a revisit is the provision of the Stock Act delayed by Friday’s legislative action. The delay means personal financial information belonging to 28,000 high-level federal workers will not have to be posted online until Dec. 8. The delay follows an outcry from employees who feared the online posting could lead to identity theft and provide information for potential kidnappers and terrorists. The original intent of the measure was to combat conflicts of interest.
Congress instituted the two-month delay to allow time to study the impact of the measure.
Yet the legislation gave the National Academy of Public Administration six months to study the impact.
“There’s a disconnect there,” Van Hollen said. “I will push for a further delay until we have the benefit of the report.”
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.