The House is in recess next week, and both chambers go into recess again at the end of May. Lawmakers have been buckling down and introducing a flurry of new bills. Here are a few noteworthy ones:
More protections for military whistleblowers and sexual assault victims
The Legal Justice for Servicemembers Act aims to make it safer for service members to report wrongdoing. Sponsors include Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.).
Boxer introduced the Military Whistleblower Protection Act in 1988, but changes to that law haven’t kept pace with the laws protecting civilian whistleblowers, she said.
Under the new measure, military whistleblowers would have similar protections as civilian federal employees who report wrongdoing or misconduct. The legal burden of proof would be more on par with that afforded to civilian feds.
Auditors at the Government Accountability Office have revealed quality issues in Defense Department investigations of whistleblower claims. Last year, less than 5 percent of the claims submitted to the DoD IG or military branch IG were substantiated.
“When the majority of whistleblowers report retaliation and the Pentagon’s processes fail to prevent it, it’s time to update the law,” Speier said.
The bill also protects victims of sexual assault against retaliation, when they report the assault case to a supervisor or officer.
A year ago, reports of military sexual assault cases spiked 50 percent. Defense officials said they saw that jump as a good sign that more service members are willing to come forward. Then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the numbers show victims are becoming more confident in the department’s reporting system.
But still, more than 60 percent of women who reported sexual assault last year also reported retaliation, according to Pentagon data.
“We must do everything we can to ensure whistleblowers, especially those shining a light on the devastation of sexual assault, are protected and are not subjected to harassment or retaliation for serving as modern-day Paul Reveres,” Markey said in a statement.
Boxer has long been an advocate for reforms related to military sexual assault reporting and training. She encouraged Hagel to give assault victims an alternative method to complete training, which he did.
“This is the least we can do so that these men and women who have been through so much are not re-victimized by exposure to curriculum that can trigger psychological trauma,” Boxer said.
In addition to extending protections, the bill gives inspectors general authority to hold accountable anyone who retaliates against a whistleblower. An IG can recommend disciplinary action against a supervisor who retaliates against an employee. The IG can also suspend personnel action against a whistleblowers, such as being transferred to another department.
The bill expands on other legislation that gives the Veterans Affairs secretary authority to fire poorly performing executives or employees. This one would let VA discipline or dismiss doctors who perform poorly or commit misconduct.
The introduction of the bill comes after several reports at regional VA medical centers, including Tomah, Wisconsin, which was dubbed “Candy Land” for how many opiates and painkillers doctors prescribed to veterans.
“It is a mark of respect for our veterans that we stop shielding substandard performance behind a bureaucratic tangle. This bill clears the way for appropriately prompt discipline,” Johnson said in a press release.
Targeting patent trolls
The Protecting American Talent and Entrepreneurship Act, which conveniently creates the acronym PATENT Act, takes a stab at patent trolls.
The bill gets into some technical and complicated legal matters. But the bottom line is, patent trolls would have to pay if they file groundless lawsuits. That means defendants would get compensation for legal costs if the plaintiff’s suit isn’t deemed “objectively reasonable.” The idea is to stop lawsuits that may be frivolous and could hamper innovation.
The measure gets high marks from Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.
“I strongly support targeted and balanced legislation that will strengthen our patent system while also ensuring the system works effectively to address abuses and inefficiencies,” Prizker said. “I look forward to working with Congress to ensure this meaningful and effective patent reform legislation is enacted into law.”
Not technically a bill, but it’s still worth mentioning. The House and Senate agreed on a 10-year budget blueprint, which they revealed Wednesday.
The non-binding plan cuts spending for civilian agencies, even further below sequestration levels. But it gives billions of dollars more to the Pentagon.
The plan is to cut $5 trillion in 10 years from federal spending, thus balancing the budget. Those cuts come not only from civilan agencies, but also domestic programs such as Medicaid and food stamps. It also calls on lawmakers to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
The White House has said it wants to restore funding for both civilian and defense agencies, and will veto a bill that doesn’t do that.