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Opinion Bipartisan Hill leaders warn White House on whistleblowers

President Trump speaks during the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington Thursday. (Win McNamee/ Pool via Bloomberg News)

Is it divine intervention or just a fortuitous coincidence that congressional defense of federal whistleblowers comes as the two-week-old Trump administration is making government employees nervous?

There is no direct evidence the Almighty looked down at the nation and determined this place needs help, though that certainly is the case. Fortunately, there is strong bipartisan congressional support for federal employees who report wrongdoing. Some of that support was evident through a coincidence in timing. Other moves were in reaction to President Trump’s heavy hand.

In case the rookie in the ways of government hasn’t figured it out yet, Republicans told him whistleblowers can be “powerful allies.”

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee demonstrated its fondness for whistleblowers by approving legislation Thursday that would tighten their protections. The day before, a committee hearing marked five years of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012. The committee’s actions reaffirm the importance of protecting whistleblowers in the face of menacing administration conduct.

The Follow the Rules Act, which would close a gap in whistleblower protections, advanced on a voice vote with no objections heard. The bill would provide protection to workers who speak up after refusing a manager’s direction to violate rules or regulations. Current law provides that protection for those who were instructed to violate the law.

The committee also approved legislation that would strengthen measures concerning agency nondisclosure policies, aka gag orders, that restrict the ability of federal workers to communicate with Congress, the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) and inspectors general.

On Wednesday, experts told the committee hearing about the importance and accomplishments of the 2012 law that strengthened whistleblower protections. “This law has lived up to its name,” said Eric Bachman, OSC’s deputy special counsel. “It has significantly enhanced OSC’s ability to protect federal employees from retaliation.”

The relevance of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act and both measures approved Thursday was underscored by recent news of Trump administration gag orders and his press secretary’s harsh rebuke of State Department employees who used a long-established agency channel to complain about Trump’s immigration executive order.

“Unfortunately, it appears that the Trump administration — in its first week — has already violated the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the committee’s ranking Democrat. “Just last week — only days after President Trump’s inauguration — we learned that federal agencies issued gag orders on federal employee communications, including their communications with Congress.”

A bit more gently, Republicans warned the Trump administration against stifling whistleblowers, saying in a letter to Donald F. McGahn II, counsel to the president, that “Congress has always safeguarded direct communication with federal employees.”

“Whistleblowers can be one of the incoming Administration’s most powerful allies to identify waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement in the federal government and ‘drain the swamp’ in Washington, D.C,” said the letter, sent Wednesday, from Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and government operations subcommittee Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C).

“As the new Administration seeks to better understand what problems exist in this area, this is an appropriate time to remind employees about the value of protected disclosures to Congress and inspectors general in accordance with whistleblower protection law,” their letter added.

After Trump was inaugurated, a few agencies restricted, at least temporarily, the amount of information available to the public. An Environmental Protection Agency memo, for example, said “no press releases will be going out to external audiences, no social media will be going out … no blog messages … no new content can be placed on any website.”

Last week, Cummings and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (N.J.), the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, complained to McGahn that restrictions on employees, even on communicating with Congress, “appear to violate a host of federal laws.” Their letter pointed to a Department of Health and Human Services memo, issued on Inauguration Day, that temporarily permitted “no correspondence to public officials (e.g., Members of Congress, Governors)” about pending or new regulations “unless specifically authorized” at the highest agency levels.

They said that memo violates various laws and “creates the impression that the Trump Administration intends to muzzle whistleblowers” and asked the White House to “immediately rescind all policies on employee communications that do not comply with the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act and other federal statutes.”

Whistleblowers can be the best friends of an administration truly interested in improving government. But their disclosures can be embarrassing and make life uncomfortable for thin-skinned leaders who would rather project an image of everything being great again.

The three members of his own party had good advice for Trump when they told him “protecting whistleblowers is crucial to your success.”

Read more:

[Gingrich joins Trump’s war on media ‘mortal enemies’]

[To resist or not, the federal employee’s dilemma]

[Democrats on Capitol Hill ask White House not to gag federal employees]