Our laws protecting government whistleblowers are in desperate need of an update, with truth-tellers facing far too many risks in coming forward. Unfortunately, the bill with the strongest whistleblower reforms has been caught in a monthslong political battle over an incident involving former President Donald Trump.
The bill in question, the bipartisan Whistleblower Protection Improvement Act, is supported by 29 members of Congress and has earned the support of a cross-ideological set of civil society organizations.
And the truth is that the overwhelming majority of whistleblower cases don’t involve Trump or any president. Much more often, they involve individuals risking their careers and their livelihoods to call out the waste, fraud and abuse of power that occur during regular government tasks such as funding transportation services for veterans, managing taxpayer money and ensuring proper safety inspection training procedures for airplanes.
For this whistleblower reform bill to pass Congress and reach President Joe Biden’s desk, both parties must put partisan politics aside and acknowledge that whistleblower protections are a priority.
There’s little time to waste, given that COVID-19 relief bills have already resulted in billions of dollars in potential improper payments. Whistleblowers play a key role in government accountability — they’re often the first alarm bell reporting misconduct — and stronger protections for these truth tellers would better ensure that the federal government tracks down any waste, fraud or abuse in current or future COVID-19 programs.
The Whistleblower Protection Improvement Act is certainly the strongest piece of whistleblower legislation in the current Congress, and it presents perhaps the best opportunity for lawmakers to act quickly. It includes several best-practice improvements to legal whistleblower protections.
The bill would ensure that federal whistleblowers can’t be punished through the use of retaliatory investigations, protect the confidentiality of a whistleblower’s identity and give federal whistleblowers access to jury trials, affording them the same rights as other types of whistleblowers.
Federal whistleblowers are currently the only major sector of the labor force that doesn’t have the right to have their cases heard by a jury. Without access to jury trials, whistleblowers have to either wait to hear from the Office of Special Counsel or deal with the paralyzed Merit Systems Protection Board, which has lacked a quorum for years and faces a backlog of over 3,000 cases. Ensuring access to jury trials is a hallmark provision in modern whistleblower laws and is critical for whistleblowers to have a fair hearing.
These protections are clearly within reach: We saw the seeds of future bipartisan cooperation planted when the House Oversight and Reform Committee advanced the whistleblower reform measure to the full chamber in June. Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., spoke powerfully about the need for commonsense enhancements to whistleblower protections, like those contained in the bill. And the committee chairwoman, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., agreed that new protections were necessary to encourage whistleblower disclosures that “safeguard taxpayer dollars, improve federal programs and save lives.”
Bipartisan support for whistleblowers is not new. Democrats such as Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have introduced legislation that would protect employees, contractors and grantees who blow the whistle on misuse of COVID-19 relief funds. And Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, a longtime conservative, has stood up for whistleblowers for decades, even when it may have been politically inconvenient to do so.
Whistleblower reforms have a history of finding common ground between the parties: the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act passed the Senate unanimously, and the 2012 Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act unanimously passed both chambers. The unequivocal bipartisan consensus in helping whistleblowers should fuel members to seek compromise, and we believe they would find willing partners in Maloney and Mace. If members have problems with provisions in the whistleblower reform bill, they shouldn’t use that as an excuse to oppose the measure outright. Working to better protect whistleblowers should remain the focus.
The only option that should be off the table is inaction. Whistleblower protections have not kept pace with the scale and scope of challenges facing federal employees, contractors, grantees and individuals in the private sector. Each political party should do whatever is necessary to get new whistleblower protections across the finish line.
Melissa Wasser is a policy counsel at the Project On Government Oversight, a watchdog group that investigates and exposes waste, corruption and abuse of power in the federal government.
Andrew Lautz is the director of federal policy at the National Taxpayers Union, a taxpayer advocacy group dedicated to mobilizing elected officials and citizens on behalf of tax relief and reform.