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House clears Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act

Advocacy groups, Office of Special Counsel hail 'strongest' such bill in history.

With most members out on the campaign trail, the House on Friday approved final passage of the long-awaited Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (S. 743), a set of 10 reforms intended to clarify the difference between policy disputes and whistleblowing.

By unanimous consent, the chamber approved an amended version of the bill that cleared the Senate in May , sponsored by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia.

It would expand the types of employee disclosures of violations of laws, rules or regulations that are protected and beef up employee rights. It also would broaden coverage to employees of the major intelligence agencies and the Transportation Security Administration, prohibiting the revocation of a security clearance in retaliation for a protected whistleblower disclosure. And it would expand the rights of the Office of Special Counsel to file friend-of-the-court briefs.

The bipartisan bill would strengthen authority for reviews by the Merit Systems Protection Board and provide whistleblowing employees with more access to their agency’s inspector general. It would establish whistleblower protection ombudsmen to educate agency personnel about whistleblower rights.

The bill now returns to the Senate, where it is up for consideration in a November lame-duck session. In the previous Congress, a version of the bill died in a December session.

“For too many of those federal employees who spoke up to expose wasteful spending and criminal behavior in the past it was true: no good deed goes unpunished,” said House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., in a statement. “It is a sad truth that many of these whistleblowers faced reprisal because they embarrassed those in power who were happy to waste taxpayer money or violate the law. By passing the Whistleblower Protection and Enhancement Act today, the House of Representatives sent a clear message to those who help us protect the American people and their hard-earned tax dollars: We stand beside you.”

Good-government groups hailed the vote, though some lamented favored components that were removed from the final version.

Tom Devine, legal director for the nonprofit Government Accountability Project, said in a statement, “The good news is that the whistleblower rights in this bill are the strongest in history for federal workers. …. The bad news is that our work is not done. Demands by a few key Republicans removed provisions for jury trials that Congress has provided for nearly all corporate whistleblowers, and national security reforms to prevent classified leaks through protection for those who act responsibly within government’s institutional checks and balances.” He said President Obama is likely to sign the bill.

The nonprofit Project on Government Oversight also supports the bill. POGO analyst Angela Canterbury said in a blog post that “every reform in the scaled-back version of S. 743 is a common-sense reform that reflects a true bipartisan agreement to enhance protections for federal whistleblowers and increase government accountability to taxpayers…..Unfortunately, every day that the bill does not become law means the public is deprived the benefit of disclosures from federal government whistleblowers about fraud, waste and abuses, which could remain ongoing..

The Office of Special Counsel said it “strongly supports” the bill, arguing that it “will help OSC perform its good government mission and protect federal employees from unlawful retaliation.” The act’s 10 key reforms, it added, “will make the Whistleblower Protection Act stronger than at any point in its history.”

National Treasury Employees Union President Colleen Kelley called on the Senate to act quickly during the lame-duck. “The public relies on federal workers to alert us to waste, abuse and threats to public health and safety,” she said in a statement. “This legislation goes far in providing them with the protections they need in order to protect us.”

(Image via Feng Yu/Shutterstock.com)