Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, sponsored the original version of the bill.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, sponsored the original version of the bill. Alex Brandon/AP

Whistleblower protection act heads to president’s desk

Senate clears bipartisan bill that covers TSA employees for the first time.

In one of its first acts in the lame-duck session, the Senate on Tuesday approved the years-in-the-making Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act, which has drawn praise from both parties and from good-government groups. The bill cleared the House in September.

Sponsored originally by retiring Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, the legislation offers an array of new protections for employees who reliably report waste, fraud and abuse while distinguishing such whistleblowing from disagreements over legitimate policy decisions.

The law includes the first whistleblower protections for the Transportation Security Administration workforce. Employees of intelligence and other national security agency employees were covered in a presidential directive issued in October.

The bill, passed unanimously, also gives the Office of Special Counsel new rights to file court briefs, suspends what had been sole jurisdiction of the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals over whistleblower cases and establishes agency Whistleblower Protection Ombudsmen to educate employees about whistleblower rights.

Following more than a decade of debate and lobbying, the House passed the bill in September and President Obama is expected to sign it.

"Whistleblowers are key to improving the performance of the federal government and must be protected for having the courage to speak out about waste, fraud and abuse,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., soon to retire as chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. “Without these protections, those closest to the problems will remain silent for fear of retaliation, and American taxpayers will pay the price."

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, ranking member of the panel, said: “Congress has consistently supported the principle that federal employees should not be subject to prior restraint or punishment from disclosing wrongdoing. This should give federal workers the peace of mind that if they speak out, they will be protected. Full whistleblower protections will also help ensure that Congress and our committee have access to the information necessary to conduct proper oversight.”

Tom Devine, legal director of the nonprofit Government Accountability Project, hailed the bill’s passage as a “major victory for taxpayers and public servants, but a major defeat for special interests and bureaucrats. Free speech rights for government employees never have been stronger,” his statement read.

Angela Canterbury, director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight, said in a statement that “Congress has enacted better protections for the brave truth-tellers who safeguard taxpayer dollars.” She said the bill “closes many loopholes and upgrades protections for federal workers who blow the whistle on waste, fraud, abuse and illegality.”

The advocacy groups plan to continue seeking protections for whistleblowers, among them codifying protections for national security employees and allowing trials by jury in whistleblower cases.