Virtually every member of Congress says cleaning up waste, fraud and abuse is essential to reducing government spending. But ferreting out government wrongdoing usually requires the cooperation of federal employees willing to come forward. Federal whistle-blowers are insufficiently protected from retaliation, and their advocates have been trying for 12 years to correct the situation. Now there is an opportunity that should not be wasted.
Earlier this month, the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act passed the U.S. Senate by unanimous consent. But there is a snag in the House, where baseless concerns raised by Republican lawmakers over the WikiLeaks disclosures may doom the effort. This bill would reduce the likelihood that insiders leak sensitive information since there would be a safe, alternative means of bringing issues to light. The WikiLeak concern is nothing but a red herring.
Federal employees who go out on a limb to expose corruption in government or some other misconduct or unethical behavior need assurance that they won't be putting their job in jeopardy. By strengthening protections for whistle-blowers, the bill provides an effective check on government officials who might otherwise waste taxpayer money to serve a personal or political interest.
The bill makes key changes in how whistle-blower rights are adjudicated. The Merit Systems Protection Board, where the initial administrative decisions on whistle-blower claims are considered, now rules against 99 percent of whistle-blowers. That is largely because the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal appellate court that has sole jurisdiction to hear appeals under current whistle-blower law, has gutted the law's protections, ruling for whistle-blowers only three times out of 213 cases since October 1994. The legislation would end this judicial monopoly and open these cases to review by other circuits for a five-year experiment. Other provisions would close judicially created loopholes, such as the one that says only the first person who reports the misconduct is protected.
This bill has the support of President Barack Obama as well as the leadership of the intelligence community, where months of detailed negotiation resulted in the language of the current bill. The legislation does not authorize the disclosure of classified information to anyone outside congressional members of the intelligence committees, which means Republican concerns over Wiki-Leaks-type disclosures is a nonissue.
Time is running out on getting the bill through this Congress. It is expected to come up for a vote this week, but because it takes a two-thirds vote to put the bill on the calendar, Republicans need to join Democrats. Any lawmaker who fails to embrace this legislation isn't serious about routing fraud, waste and abuse from government — no matter what was said on the campaign trail.