House-passed oversight package would expand federal employee whistleblower protections

The House on Thursday passed a package of oversight and transparency initiatives, a grab-bag of legislative proposals that touch on everything from presidential power to federal employee whistleblower protections.

Many of them are familiar, ranging from new protections for agency inspectors general to limitations on how long acting officials can serve.

The 174-page bill, known as the Protecting Our Democracy Act, includes plenty of provisions that are relevant for federal employees, including new whistleblower protections and...

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The House on Thursday passed a package of oversight and transparency initiatives, a grab-bag of legislative proposals that touch on everything from presidential power to federal employee whistleblower protections.

Many of them are familiar, ranging from new protections for agency inspectors general to limitations on how long acting officials can serve.

The 174-page bill, known as the Protecting Our Democracy Act, includes plenty of provisions that are relevant for federal employees, including new whistleblower protections and updates to the 80-year-old Hatch Act.

But the bill also includes an array of provisions that are a legislative reaction to issues that lawmakers grappled with during the previous administration. Provisions that, for example, ban self-pardons by the president and prohibit the acceptance of foreign or domestic emoluments, got the most attention. Other provisions require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns, while others suspend the statute of limitations for offenses committed by a sitting president or vice president.

Republicans certainly took notice of those provisions. Only one voted for the bill Thursday, despite the fact that pieces of the legislation, including provisions expanding federal employee whistleblower protections, had bipartisan support on their own.

“Democrats are determined to make the federal government run as inefficiently as possible by allowing incompetent or dishonest federal employees to keep their jobs,” James Comer (R-Ky.), ranking member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, said Thursday from the House floor. “The so-called whistleblower protections in the bill are so expansive that if a federal employee, even a bad or ineffective one, claims they are a whistleblower, they are almost immune from scrutiny. The oversight committee has great respect for whistleblowers; we need them to conduct true oversight. They serve an essential role in evaluating waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government. But sometimes federal employees attempt to claim they are whistleblowers to shield themselves from scrutiny of poor performance.”

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) likened the legislation to the series of laws Congress passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal during the late 1970s.

“In the wake of presidential abuses of power during the Nixon administration, Congress responded with a broad set of reforms to strengthen the institutions of our democracy,” he said Thursday during a press conference on the new oversight package. “New campaign finance and ethics laws were put in place, along with transparency requirements, including mandatory financial disclosures. Offices of inspectors general were stood up to search out corruption and malfeasance. Congressional committees were organized to oversee intelligence agencies, and the president’s power to declare war was circumscribed. These post-Watergate reforms and others did a great deal to preserve the balance of power for much of the last half-century. But many of these limits on executive power have been worn away by successive presidents after Nixon.”

Democrats included the entirety of the Whistleblower Protection Improvement Act (WPIA), a bill that House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) introduced back in May.

The WPIA prohibits agencies from launching retaliatory investigations against whistleblowers and bars them from retaliating against federal employees who share information with Congress.

Notably, the bill gives federal employees access to a jury trial under certain circumstances, a feature that didn’t make the cut in the last update to whistleblower law back in 2012.

Specifically, the legislation lets whistleblowers appeal their cases in federal district court if the Merit Systems Protection Board doesn’t issue a decision within six months, or eight months for more complex cases.

The MSPB currently can’t review many of these cases because it doesn’t have a quorum, and hasn’t had one in nearly four years. The board hasn’t had any members in more than two years. The president’s three nominees for the board are awaiting action in the Senate.

The bill also extends whistleblower protections to members of the non-career Senior Executive Service, Public Health Service officers or applicants and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s commissioned officer corps.

In addition, the legislation takes steps to protect a whistleblower’s identity, to include employees in the intelligence community. It prohibits, for example, government officers or employees from sharing whistleblower disclosure information with anyone involved in that disclosure.

“This reform legislation, when enacted, will finally provide the type of support for federal employee whistleblowers that we have sought for over forty years and that recent polls indicate the public is demanding as well by overwhelming percentages,” Louis Clark, president and CEO of the Government Accountability Project, said Thursday in a statement. “Whistleblowers are and with this help will remain true agents of accountability and integrity.”

A Hatch Act update, more IG protections

The new bill also attempts to add more teeth to the Hatch Act, a 1939 law that prohibits most in the executive branch from engaging in certain political activities as public servants.

That law has gotten national attention after OSC recently uncovered Hatch Act violations from 13 Trump officials during the administration’s last year.

Congress has done little to change the Hatch Act since 1939, with a few exceptions. The Civil Service Reform Act set a new enforcement scheme for the Hatch Act with the creation of the MSPB and OSC, and a 2012 law later changed the penalties for federal employees.

The Protecting Our Democracy Act lets OSC bring Hatch Act violations from political appointees to the MSPB, as long as the president hasn’t taken the recommended disciplinary action against the official.

The bill also allows the board to impose penalties of up to $50,000 against political appointees who have committed Hatch Act violations.

The Protecting Our Democracy Act includes a range of other familiar oversight initiatives.

The legislation, for example, limits a president’s authority to fire an IG to a narrow set of reasons, a key feature of the  IG Independence and Empowerment Act. A full version of that bill already cleared the House earlier this year.

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