Whistleblower Day, but Not for Hill Staff
The Senate approved a resolution Thursday declaring July 30, 2015, “National Whistleblower Appreciation Day,” though senators’ own staffers are not afforded the same protections as other federal workers.
On the same day, the Office of Compliance, which oversees workplace complaints and safety issues around the Capitol, released its annual report for fiscal 2014. Among the recommendations was extending whistleblower protections to congressional employees. “When Congress passed the [Congressional Accountability Act] to apply workplace rights laws to the Legislative Branch, it did not include significant provisions of some of those laws and exempted itself entirely from others, such as the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989,” wrote the report’s authors.
“While the Legislative Branch may be exempt from laws protecting whistleblowers, it is not immune from the same type of abuse and gross mismanagement as there is in the Executive Branch,” they wrote. “Congressional employees do not have whistleblower protections if they decide to report such matters.”
According to the OOC, congressional employees are also “often in the best position” to know and report illegal activity and mismanagement. The 2014 report is the fifth straight year that the office has recommended that lawmakers extend protections to their own employees.
But most of the senators who are part of the Whistleblower Protection Caucus were not aware that congressional employees remained unprotected.
Asked about the office’s report, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, one of the caucus’s founders, said federal workers are protected. When informed about the OOC report that stated protections did not extend to legislative branch workers, Grassley said, “We’ll take a look at it.”
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., another of the caucus’s founding members, was shocked to learn congressional employees are not protected.
“They should [be protected],” McCaskill said. “I’ll go right back to the office and say, ‘Draft that legislation!'”
“Whistleblowers should be allowed to operate and have protections everywhere in our government,” McCaskill added. “Everywhere.”
McCaskill hypothesized that perhaps the political nature of Capitol Hill kept employees from being included in the past.
“We have a lot of staffers here who have strong political leanings. People are probably worried that there would be abuse of being a whistleblower for partisan purposes,” McCaskill said.
“I don’t think you have that kind of partisan atmosphere and that competitive campaign atmosphere in other parts of the government,” she added. “So I get that concern, but I still think we ought to have whistleblower protections.”
One caucus member who was aware of the lack of protections was Sen. Barbra Boxer, D-Calif., who introduced a bill in April to help strengthen protections for military whistleblowers.
“I’m working on a new whistleblower protection act and we are looking at who was left out,” Boxer said. Her staff is reviewing the OOC report.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who also introduced the military whistleblower act, appeared poised to take action on including legislative branch employees.
“Sen. Wyden absolutely agrees with the concept that legislative branch employees deserve strong whistleblower protections,” said Wyden’s spokesman Keith Chu. “He plans to work with Senate colleagues and the Senate Whistleblower Caucus on ways to upgrade the current safeguards for employees who speak out.”
In the meantime, one lawmakers wants congressional employees to know they can reach out to his office with any whistleblower issues.
“I would say that is news to me,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., when told that legislative workers were not protected. “I think they should be. And certainly we’ve [set up] a website, firstname.lastname@example.org, and I hope they would take advantage of that.”
“I’ll protect ‘em,” he added.
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