Special counsel, merit protection measure advances

A House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on Tuesday overrode Republican objections to pass a bill to protect federal employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation, in a rebuke to the head of the Office of Special Counsel.

Democrats on the Oversight and Government Reform Federal Workforce Subcommittee used legislation reauthorizing OSC and the Merit Systems Protection Board to impose measures increasing their control of both agencies, which are responsible for safeguarding civil service protections.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee is considering a similar bill that was introduced Monday.

The most contentious provision is aimed at Special Counsel Scott Bloch, who has not followed his predecessor's policy of pursuing cases filed by government workers who allege they faced discrimination because they are gay.

"Congress repudiates any assertion that federal employees are not protected from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation," the bill says.

The bill requires future special counsels to have experience related to "protecting the merit-based civil service," and mandates that investigations of special counsels be handled by a committee of inspectors general.

Critics note that Bloch, though he has employment law experience, is a political appointee who came from a job at a Justice Department task force on faith-based initiatives. Bloch faces an investigation by the Office of Personnel Management inspector general into charges that he retaliated against whistleblowers who opposed his policies.

In measures drafted with advice from government watchdog groups who charge OSC and the board with insufficient enforcement of whistleblower laws, the reauthorization contains provisions requiring the agencies to report more often to Congress and to give complainants more case information.

It cuts both agencies' reauthorization period from five to three years, which Federal Workforce Subcommittee Chairman Danny Davis, D-Ill., said would allow Congress to "review [the agencies'] implementation of the act before they are authorized for a longer period."

Republicans pushed for changes to the section of the bill on sexual orientation. Federal Workforce Subcommittee ranking member Kenny Marchant, R-Texas, asked for it to be tabled to allow compromise language clarifying that the bill is reaffirming existing law rather than making a new law.

When Davis declined, arguing that differences could be worked about before the bill reaches full committee, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, offered an amendment striking the section.

That set off a sharp debate with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., arguing the bill's failure to define sexual orientation could allow protections for incest, pedophilia or polygamy. "Not all sexual activity, as some would call it, is protected," he said.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said Republicans were seeking a delay to "work up the homophobia in groups around them." The amendment was defeated on a 6-3 party-line vote.

OSC will likely face an even more hostile hearing when the reauthorization bill reaches the full committee. Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Tom Davis, R-Va., who has ripped Bloch's investigations into the head of the General Services Administration and into political briefings by White House aides, will offer amendments aimed at "increasing transparency" at the agency, a Davis spokesman said.

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