Lawmakers: Obama needs new tune on whistleblower protections
The president's wariness of whistleblower protections could discourage feds from reporting wrongdoing, lawmakers fear. (Stock Image)
Lawmakers from both parties are urging President Barack Obama to institute the enhanced whistleblower protections in the new defense authorization bill, despite his criticism of the provisions.
“We are concerned your statement that accompanied the signing of the [fiscal 2013 National Defense Authorization Act] into law may be perceived as undermining congressional intent and discouraging individuals from helping to protect taxpayer dollars,” Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) wrote in a Jan. 17 lettter. “Furthermore, your statement could be perceived as potentially eroding protections for federal workers and discouraging them from helping expose improper behavior.”
The four lawmakers noted that, since they oversee the executive branch, both public-sector and private-sector employees have an obligation to bring information to Congress. They encouraged Obama to have his administration enforce the defense bill’s provisions to “show its dedication to transparency and accountability.”
McCaskill has been a senior member of the committees on Armed Services and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. Grassley has been a senior Finance Committee member. Issa and Cummings are the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Outside experts have suggested Obama’s statement creates doubt about how agencies will handle whistleblower protections for contractors.
“We are really pleased to see these members of Congress standing up for whistleblowers and their constitutional duties of oversight,” said Angela Canterbury, director for public policy at the Project on Government Oversight. “Congress has far too often ceded power to the presidency. But these lawmakers are obviously not rolling over.”
Canterbury added that POGO would be doing its part to support whistleblowers as well.
“We will be keeping a close eye on how the new whistleblower protections are put into practice,” she said. Obama’s comments “already caused confusion, and very likely will create a chilling effect on disclosures of waste, fraud, and abuse. Congress needs to make it clear that the president cannot limit their right to know.”
The president signed the defense bill into law on Jan. 2, but also issued an accompanying signing statement that said the provisions allowing contractors to expose government waste and gross mismanagement directly to Congress “could be interpreted in a manner that would interfere with my authority to manage and direct executive branch officials.”
Obama warned lawmakers that his administration will closely watch contractors’ interactions with Congress. “I will interpret those sections consistent with my authority to direct the heads of executive departments to supervise, control, and correct employees’ communications with the Congress in cases where such communications would be unlawful or would reveal information that is properly privileged or otherwise confidential,” he wrote.
The law protects contractor employees who disclose information that they reasonably believe to be evidence of gross mismanagement, abuse of authority, or violations of laws, including regulations regarding contract negotiations and awards. The bill permanently covers all employees of defense contractors and subcontractors who bring forth the evidence, and states that the new rights cannot be waived under any agreement or policy.
The bill also extends protections to whistleblowers who are harassed or fired by a contractor at the government’s direction. And it establishes a four-year pilot program enhancing whistleblower protections applicable to all civilian federal agency contractors. Those protections then could become permanent.