Congress

So much for Whistleblower Appreciation Day; Capitol Hill workers still unprotected

Employees of legislative branch agencies don't have the same protections as other federal workers

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., once cosponsored a whistleblower protection bill, but Capitol Hill staff remain unprotected. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate had declared July 30 as “National Whistleblower Appreciation Day,” but that apparently is for other people, since senators’ own staffers and other legislative branch employees are not protected equally compared to other federal workers.

The discrepancy has been in place for years, but legislation to expand protections for employees of the House and Senate, Library of Congress, Capitol Police and other agencies hasn’t moved forward.

National Whistleblower Appreciation Day, designated this year on July 23, came an went and although he touted protections for other federal employees, Charles E. Grassley, the head of the Whistleblower Protection Caucus, didn’t have much to say about unprotected workers on Capitol Hill. 

Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden and  Grassley introduced a bill in 2016 that would apply whistleblower protections available to certain executive branch employees to legislative branch employees, but the bill was never even taken up in committee. The bipartisan pair lead the Whistleblower Protection Caucus.

“Everyone in government needs to do more to protect those who blow the whistle on waste of taxpayer funds, fraud or abuse. That includes Congress itself,” said Wyden when that bill was introduced.

He reiterated his support for protections for legislative branch staff this week. But no members have introduced similar legislation so far this in the 116th Congress.

But Grassley raised concerns this week over the expansion of protections to Capitol Hill workers.

“I want to go back and look at the debate that we had on whistleblowers and see if that would be in conflict with the Speech and Debate Clause,” he told CQ Roll Call on Monday.

The Speech and Debate Clause of the Constitution aims to protect the independence of the legislative branch by protecting against executive or judicial intrusions.

It is unclear if the legislation to protect Capitol Hill workers will be reintroduced this year. Wyden said Tuesday that he needs to talk to Grassley before the pair commit to reviving the legislative effort to apply whistleblower protections to Capitol Hill employees.

The Office of Congressional Workplace Rights has urged lawmakers to extend whistleblower protections to legislative branch employees for years, including in its latest batch of recommendations released in March.

“Granting ‘whistleblower’ protection could significantly improve the rights and protections afforded to legislative branch employees in an area fundamental to the institutional integrity of the legislative branch by uncovering waste and fraud and safeguarding the budget,” says OCWR.

The agency, formerly known as the Office of Compliance, recommends that legislative branch employees be safeguarded against reprisals for “reporting violations of laws, rules, or regulations, gross mismanagement, gross waste of funds, abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.”

Employees have reached out to the agency with inquiries and concerns about lack of whistleblower protections, according to the report. The agency says the clack of specific protections has a chilling effect on the disclosure of information about waste, fraud and abuse within Congress and its support agencies.

Earlier this year, the House adopted a resolution that would create the Office of the Whistleblower Ombudsman to help develop best practices and trainings for House offices to receive whistleblower information. But the office is designed to train and ensure that staff receiving whistleblower complaints can protect them. It is not designed to protect staff themselves if they chose to come forward as a whistleblower.

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