A long-stalled plan in Congress to strengthen protections for Veterans Affairs Department employees who disclose waste and misconduct — and to punish officials who retaliate against them — is poised to hitch a ride to enactment this week on the high-priority measure to head off a partial government shutdown.
Authority to continue funding the government beyond the end of its budget year Friday was attached to a spending bill for the VA that contains language to aid whistleblowers there. The Senate is set to take up that measure first and then the House — action needed to prevent a partial government shutdown because regular spending bills bogged down.
While the measure would continue funding most government operations only through Dec. 9, the portions affecting the VA — along with military construction projects also funded by the same underlying bill — would apply through the entire new fiscal year.
“VA has promised to foster a culture of openness by encouraging employees to report cases of wrongdoing, yet there continue to be reports that after bringing to light cases of wrongdoing, the whistleblowers become subjects of retaliation,” says a summary by the Senate Appropriations Committee.
VA employees mainly disclosed the manipulation of patient scheduling wait times and other management issues that have embroiled the department in controversy over the past two years. One side effect was a wave of complaints from those employees, and from those who cooperated with investigations, about reprisal by management.
The measure requires supervisors to promptly investigate disclosures made by their subordinates and to disclose what actions they will take if there seems to be a genuine problem; gives employees the right to pursue the issue with higher-level management if dissatisfied with the response; and creates a new central office “to ensure whistleblower disclosures receive the prompt, impartial attention deserved.”
Management officials who retaliate against whistleblowers — for example, by lowering their job ratings or shifting them to make-work duties — would be subject to mandatory discipline: for a first offense, between a 12-day suspension and firing; a second offense, firing. That would be a rare departure from the general government policy of allowing agencies to choose what, if any, discipline to impose.
Further, job ratings of supervisors would include how they responded to whistleblower complaints.
Similar language is in several other bills that have been pending for months in Congress, including one recently passed by the House and sent to the Senate. That bill also includes several restrictions on VA employee rights to appeal disciplinary actions up to and including firing.
While the White House objected to the appeal rights changes in that bill, it did not threaten a veto, nor oppose the whistleblower provisions.
Changes in personnel practices at the VA, whose 330,000-plus employees make up about a sixth of the federal workforce outside the independent Postal Service, are widely seen as setting a precedent for a bid to make the same changes throughout the government.