To its credit, the Obama administration played an active role in getting a key Senate committee this week to pass new federal employee whistle-blower protections. Advocates have been pressing for nearly 10 years for reforms that would breathe life back into whistle-blower protections eroded by a hostile administrative hearing board and federal court. Now it looks like their efforts may pay off. While there are still substantive differences between the House and Senate versions, whistle-blower reform is likely to pass this year.
New protections are needed if federal employees are to be given confidence that they may safely come forward to expose dishonesty within government, official corruption, or other illegal or unethical acts. Federal employees are often the only witnesses to the adoption of lobbyist-driven policies that enrich private industry. They are often the only ones to know when federal agencies are wasting money, hiding mistakes or burying a scientific finding because it doesn't fit a political agenda.
For instance, one of the most prominent whistle-blowers is NASA's Dr. James Hansen, whom the Bush administration tried unsuccessfully to silence on man-made global climate change. Because of his stature, Hansen got away with his disclosures about attempted censorship. But generally bosses don't respond kindly to a whistle-blower in their midst. Truth tellers are generally rewarded for that public service with a demotion or firing.
Federal law is supposed to prevent that from happening or respond appropriately when it does. But the Whistleblower Protection Act has been gutted by the Merit Systems Protection Board, where the initial administrative decisions on employee whistle-blower claims are made. Only three out of 53 whistle-blowers have received favorable final rulings since 2000, according to the nonprofit Government Accountability Project. The only federal court that can hear whistle-blower appeals, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, has ruled for whistleblowers in only three of 203 cases since October 1994.
The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2009 (S. 372, H.R. 1507) would update and modernize the law's protections. It even includes a key provision that some senators have objected to in the past, giving employees the right to a jury trial in federal court. But thanks to the White House's involvement, that protection is in the bill approved unanimously by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
The biggest remaining sticking point between the House and Senate is whether the new law would cover national security workers, such as employees of the FBI, CIA and Defense Department. The House bill covers them while the Senate bill does not go that far. At least some of those national security workers should be protected.
Expanding whistle-blower protection is essential if federal employees are to put their careers in jeopardy to expose government wrongdoing. This is a matter of public health and safety, and Congress should get it done this year.