Whistleblower legislation faces veto threat

Bill would boost protections for employees in security and science agencies from retaliation for disclosing mismanagement.

The Democratically-led Congress may be headed for a showdown with the White House over whistleblower protection legislation that easily passed in the House earlier this week.

The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (H.R. 985) is directed at guarding federal employees at security and scientific agencies, as well as contractors. House members passed it by a vote of 331-94; the White House has threatened a veto. The legislation would allow the Merit Systems Protection Board 180 days to take action on cases alleging retaliation for reporting potential waste, fraud or abuse. If MSPB failed to meet that deadline, whistleblowers would have the option of taking their cases to federal district courts.

The bill, which has yet to be considered in the Senate, also contains provisions to protect whistleblowers' security clearances - essential for national security workers - from being used as leverage to punish or discipline them. The Senate has not yet set a date to consider the bill.

"Abuse of the government security clearance process is the single most widely used method of punishing government whistleblowers," said Daniel Hirsch of the Concerned Foreign Service Officers group, formed to advocate improvements to the clearance process.

The White House opposes the legislation, and in a strongly worded statement Tuesday, argued the bill's passage would "compromise national security." The statement also said the measure is unconstitutional. "Rather than promote and protect genuine disclosures of matters of real public concern, it would likely increase the number of frivolous complaints and waste resources," the administration stated.

The legislation would effectively negate a Supreme Court ruling finding government whistleblowers are not entitled to First Amendment protections when they report concerns up their workplace chain of command.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who was among the legislation's sponsors, lashed out at the White House, saying "the Bush administration has done everything it can to operate in secret, to avoid public scrutiny and to limit congressional oversight."

During consideration of the bill, Waxman warned his colleagues of the consequences of inadequate whistleblower protection by highlighting the White House's preparation for war in Iraq.

"There are a lot of federal officials who knew the intelligence on Iraq was wrong," Waxman said. "Officials in the CIA and the State Department knew that Iraq did not try to import uranium from Niger. Officials in the Energy Department knew the aluminum tubes were not suitable for nuclear centrifuges. It is imperative that national security employees be protected against retribution so they will not be afraid to report national security abuses to members of Congress."

One Capitol Hill source familiar with the bill said that the Senate will likely pass it and send it to the White House even in the face of a veto threat. The margin by which the bill first passed the House would be sufficient to override any veto; a two-thirds vote in the Senate also would be needed.