Employees report government wrongdoing at great risk to themselves and their families. With that understanding, last week the House of Representatives banded together to unanimously advance four federal whistleblower laws. This otherwise rare act of unification reflects Congress’ bipartisan mandate to protect the brave employees who disclose waste, fraud and abuse.
Unfortunately, some managers have been able to engage in whistleblower retaliation without being held accountable. Their get-out-of-jail free card sends a clear message to potential whistleblowers that it’s ok to silence the messenger. However, federal managers will now have to think about the consequences of mistreating whistleblowers. The Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick Whistleblower Protection Act (S. 585) requires agencies to discipline retaliatory managers. Inspired by Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick – a rising VA psychologist who suffered extensive harassment and ultimately ended his own life after his patient safety concerns fell on deaf ears – the bill received unanimous Congressional support and will now go to the President for his signature. The Make It Safe Coalition’s letter on the bill can be found here.
Historically federal whistleblowers could only file an appeal with the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, which has a negative track record against whistleblower claims. The All Circuit Review Act (H.R. 2229) makes permanent a pilot program within the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA) that allows federal whistleblowers to appeal their cases from the Merit Systems Protection Board (the government board that hears federal worker cases) to any court of appeals where they live or work. Congress must take the next step to protect federal whistleblowers by providing them with access to a jury to challenge retaliation – a right that is currently enjoyed by most federal contractor and private sector employees, but not regular federal employees.
In 2012 the Obama Administration provided intelligence community whistleblowers with the right to make a classified disclosure directly to their supervisors within the chain of command up to the agency head, whereas previously they could only make protected disclosures to the Office of Special Counsel and Inspectors General. H.R. 2196 extends this common-sense right to all employees handling classified information – not just those within intelligence community agencies. Nonetheless, workers still take significant professional and personal risks when they engage in protected whistleblowing. The employee should consult an attorney trained in whistleblower law before taking any action.
The Bonuses for Cost-Cutters Act of 2017 (H.R. 378) sends a positive message to courageous civil servants by doubling their prospective bonus when they report waste, fraud or abuse within their agency. For this incentive to take root, however, managers need to use it on a routine basis to reward good stewardship of taxpayer dollars.
The Senate should swiftly follow the House’s recent display of bipartisanship and advance these government measures without delay. Voters and brave civil servants deserve nothing less.