The strange odyssey of S. 743: Whistleblowers finally get some help

Sometimes there’s actually good news from Capitol Hill. This time around it’s that a bill protecting federal workers who act in the public interest by reporting waste, fraud, or abuse is now the law of the land. It was just this past November [2012] when the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA, S. 743) finally navigated its way to passage. Not only did it pass. It was unanimously approved.

Hold your applause, though. Unanimous approval in 2012 followed fourteen years of debate. Fourteen years of procedural warfare would actually be a more accurate description of the saga.

Let’s put those fourteen years in context. Fourteen years is four years longer than it took the hero Odysseus to wend his way home after the wars. Fourteen years is twice as long as it took James Joyce to write his journey masterwork, Ulysses. And even though the whistleblower act didn’t have to battle sea monsters nor the entrapments of seduction, it did face other daunting obstacles before securing passage.

In fact, during four consecutive congressional sessions, the bill seemed poised to pass when last-minute, off-the-floor shenanigans scuttled the deal. During one infamous session, in the final hours of the final day of the 2009–2010 session, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle were stunned when an anonymous final-hour secret hold killed the bill. This was how the debacle was reported by the Government Accountability Project:

Earlier that month, the Senate had passed the . . . WPEA by unanimous consent. By midday, the legislation had also passed the House of Representatives, again by unanimous consent, with certain protections stripped. Headed back to the Senate, passage was expected to be merely a formality to a bill that was a decade in the making.

Instead, the legislation was sabotaged by one (or more) senator’s anonymous secret hold, a sinister tactic that allows for a senator to halt legislation from being voted on while remaining anonymous.

Who, you might ask, would oppose a common-sense bill that protects federal workers who just want to assure the honesty and efficiency of the day-to-day workings of our government? Look no further than inside the halls of bureaucracy themselves. According to Government Accountability Project Legal Director Tom Devine, “government managers at all levels made pleas and repeatedly blocked the bill through procedural sabotage.”

The shock and anger at the secret hold was so intense that NPR’s “On the Media” and the Government Accountability Project together launched the “Blow the Whistle Project.” Harnessing the power of what progressive historian Howard Zinn called “small acts” rather than “grand, heroic actions,” individual listeners of three hundred public radio stations across the country called their senators to ask them if they were responsible for the secret hold. In the end, through basic, grassroots organizing and committed individuals taking a few minutes to make phone calls, the project was able to narrow down the search to two senators—Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) and Jon Kyl (R-Arizona)—who might have been responsible for the secret hold.

In the end, the more responsible urges of our elected officials prevailed. What this means is that today, the protections of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act are helping federal employees breathe a bit easier, knowing that if they see something they can say something—without fear of punishment or censure. And when our federal workers—who work for us after all—are able to fulfill the obligations of their jobs without fear, we all benefit.