House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., is spearheading the effort.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., is spearheading the effort. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

House Considers New Whistleblower Protection Rules 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s proposal would protect the identities of federal whistleblowers. 

The rules that will govern the next session of the House of Representatives might include a proposal to protect the identities of federal whistleblowers. 

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., sent a letter to Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., chairman of the House Rules Committee, on Tuesday asking him to consider his proposal that would make revealing a whistleblower’s identity a violation of the House’s Code of Official Conduct in the new rules package the House will vote on after it is released. This would cover members, delegates, resident commissioners, officers and employees of the House. Hoyer was reelected as majority leader on Wednesday for the 117th Congress that will begin on January 3, 2021.

“Without vigorous oversight that includes encouraging federal employees who see wrongdoing to report it anonymously and without fear of retribution, Congress cannot hold the executive officials, including the president and his appointees, to account or enact laws that serve the people it represents,” Hoyer wrote. “Members of Congress who would willfully undermine their own institution’s ability to conduct oversight by revealing or threatening to reveal the identities of whistleblowers must face consequences.”

A spokesman for the House Rules Committee told Government Executive that the “the chairman fully supports the goal of this proposal” and is “vetting it as we continue our work on the rules package.” The proposal does not apply for situations in which the whistleblower consents to his/her identity being disclosed, he/she already publicly disclosed her identity or a committee chair discloses the name after two-thirds of the committee votes to do so out of the public’s interest. 

In the letter, Hoyer referenced the situation surrounding the intelligence community whistleblower last year who reported that President Trump asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky on a phone call in July “to do us a favor” by investigating a 2020 political rival. This led to the House impeaching Trump for asking the foreign power to interfere in the election and attempting to withhold aid to Ukraine until it agreed to cooperate. During the proceedings, Trump took sharp aim at the whistleblower and the federal employees who testified. 

Trump and Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., were among those who called for the whistleblower to be named and then Paul read the alleged name on the Senate floor in February. 

Lawmakers and oversight experts said during a hearing in January that Trump’s attacks on the whistleblower could have long-term, harmful effects. Among the federal employees surveyed by the Government Business Council, Government Executive’ research arm, in December 2019, 34% said they were less likely to report wrongdoing to the appropriate authorities due to attacks by the president and congressional Republicans on the whistleblower, 16% said they were more likely and 50% were neutral. 

These threats were meant to dissuade federal employees from bringing to the attention of Congress “possible corruption and malfeasance in the federal agencies and departments in which they work,” Hoyer wrote. “Under federal law, the identities of whistleblowers are protected in order to prevent workplace retribution and to provide for the physical safety of the individuals and their families,” he said in an accompanying press release

Besides impeachment, the novel coronavirus pandemic has thrust whistleblowers into the spotlight this past year. This was exemplified by Dr. Rick Bright who was reassigned from his role as director of Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (a division of the Health and Human Services Department), and then filed an extensive whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel about concerns with how the Trump administration was responding to the pandemic. He resigned from his demoted position in early October and now serves on President-elect Joe Biden’s coronavirus advisory board. 

Hoyer acknowledged his proposal would only be for the House, but said he hopes the Senate will consider it as well. 

“For many whistleblowers, anonymity is the best shield against devastating retaliation. Whistleblowers are fundamental to Congress’ ability to exercise its oversight authority and it's just plain common sense that the institution should adopt a standard to protect their identities,” Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy for the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, told Government Executive on Wednesday. “We applaud House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's proposal. I would further urge both chambers of Congress to adopt whistleblower protections for employees and contractors of the legislative branch.”