Lawmakers Advance Bills to Boost Federal Employee Protections, Agency Oversight

Jun 29, 2021
In The News

Measures to root out malfeasance at federal agencies by protecting employees and increasing oversight made progress toward becoming law on Tuesday, finding support at both the committee and full House levels. 

In the House Oversight and Reform Committee, lawmakers advanced bills to safeguard whistleblowers and boost the independent agency that ensures enforcement of civil service laws. The Whistleblower Protection Improvement Act (H.R. 2988) would implement new prohibitions on agencies investigating or otherwise retaliating against employees who disclose wrongdoing, including those who bring their concerns to Congress. It would also require quicker access to appeals for whistleblowers facing reprisal and ensure those who prevail can recover attorney fees and receive any promotions on which they may have missed out. More employees would receive protections, such as officers within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Public Health Service, as well as non-career Senior Executive Service employees. 

Key to whistleblower protection enforcement is the Merit Systems Protection Board, which would be reauthorized through 2026 under the MSPB Empower Act (H.R. 1224) that the committee also approved Tuesday. The measure, which would mark the first reauthorization at the agency in more than a decade, would require whistleblower training for some MSPB employees and allow for new surveys of the federal workforce to identify where civil service statutes were falling short. MSPB has been hamstrung for years by a lack of Senate-confirmed members, leading to an unprecedented backlog of more than 3,000 cases that cannot be heard. President Biden recently nominated two individuals to serve on the board who, if confirmed, would finally restore a quorum at the agency. 

The panel also advanced the Periodically Listing Updates to Management (PLUM) Act (H.R. 2043) to boost transparency of senior executives in government. The measure would require the Office of Personnel Management and the General Services Administration to maintain a list of 9,000 non-competitive federal positions on a publicly available site with monthly updates displaying the names of individuals holding each position. The posting would include Senate-confirmed presidentially appointed positions, other appointees and non-career members of the Senior Executive Service.

“The PLUM Act would make our government more transparent for the American people by providing timely information about senior government officials who are making decisions that impact the lives of millions,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who chairs the oversight panel. She added the other measures would “make long overdue reforms to ensure that whistleblowers are protected from retaliation and to provide equitable remedies when whistleblowers do face retaliation.” 

Republicans on the committee opposed the measures. Ranking Member Rep. Buddy Comer, R-Ky., argued the PLUM Act’s increased transparency would “dissuade highly talented individuals from wanting to join the government.” They also voted against the MSPB bill, suggesting more reforms to the agency—such as requiring appellees to pay up front fees—were necessary. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., the top Republican on the Government Operations subcommittee, introduced alternative reauthorization legislation, but the committee did not take it up for a vote. Comer also spoke out against the whistleblower bill, saying it was a “solution in search of a problem” and would allow career feds to “stymie, slow roll or outright prevent the effective implementation of presidential policies.” 

The full House on Tuesday was also expected to take up and pass the Inspector General Independence and Empowerment Act (H.R. 2662), a bill to ensure IGs can only be removed for cause and restrict who could serve as an acting IG. Democrats are looking to enforce the protections after criticizing President Trump for removing a number of agency watchdogs while in office and, in some cases, temporarily replacing them with individuals without a connection to federal auditing. Republicans have balked at those efforts, as well as provisions aimed at expanding IG authority to enable the subpoenaing of non-government employees. Comer pitched an amendment from the House floor to strip the bill of those elements, but he did not win Democratic support.