Protecting whistleblowers has long been a bipartisan commitment in Congress. As the last line of defense against waste, fraud, and government corruption, whistleblowers put themselves at risk performing a public service to enable accountability. Congressional leaders in both parties have generally honored whistleblowers for their extraordinary courage and invaluable contributions by championing bipartisan legislative reforms to ensure that whistleblowers can safely speak out to expose corruption. Nevertheless, in September 2022, when the House of Representatives passed H.R. 2988, the Whistleblower Protection Improvement Act, only two Republicans voted in favor of the bipartisan bill. This reflects a disconnect between Republican representatives in Congress and their voters.
Recent polling from the Project On Government Oversight shows that Republican voters in battleground states are overwhelmingly concerned about corruption in the federal government. That polling also shows that these voters want their elected representatives and candidates for public office to prioritize fighting corruption, and they are in favor of making specific legislative reforms in order to reduce corruption. One specific reform Republican voters want their elected leaders to enact is increasing protections for federal employees who blow the whistle. Congressional Republicans now have the chance to protect whistleblowers and serve the interests of their voters by passing the Whistleblower Protection Improvement Act.
Republican Voters Want Their Representatives to Act
In 2021, POGO commissioned a survey of 600 likely voters in the battleground states of Michigan and Ohio and conducted additional focus groups of likely voters in those states. The results show that an overwhelming majority of voters across party lines and other key demographics believe that government corruption is a big problem, and voters want their elected representatives to pass commonsense legislative reforms to better address that corruption.
The survey shows that voters are concerned about many different types of corruption, identifying bribery, dishonesty, purposeful mismanagement, the power of corporate lobbyists and special interests, and abusing the public’s trust for personal gain as examples of misconduct they’ve noticed. In that survey, 75% of Republicans said they are very concerned about bribery, embezzlement, kickbacks, and extortion. And 66% of Republicans said they are very concerned about elected officials taking or benefiting from political contributions from an individual, sector, or company seeking special tax breaks or government contracts, then pushing for their interests.
Republican voters also expressed a desire to see candidates for elected office with concrete plans to reduce corruption. Of the surveyed Republicans in Michigan and Ohio, 83% said they would be more likely to support a candidate with a campaign plan to reduce the influence of special interests and corruption in government.
Among other reforms, Republican voters — 85% of Ohio Republicans and 82% of Michigan Republicans surveyed — said improving protections for whistleblowers who witness and report corruption would be an effective or very effective way to prevent corruption in government.
“Republican voters — 85% of Ohio Republicans and 82% of Michigan Republicans surveyed — said improving protections for whistleblowers who witness and report corruption would be an effective or very effective way to prevent corruption in government.”
It’s clear that voters are looking to their representatives to enact meaningful reforms that reduce and prevent corruption in the federal government. Very few voters surveyed believe that current laws adequately protect whistleblowers, showing a deep understanding of an issue often dismissed by lawmakers as not front of mind for the public.
Voters also said they believe corruption is getting worse. Almost three-fourths of all voters polled said corruption in the federal government has increased in the past 10 years. And Republican voters were most likely to say that federal government corruption had increased over the year prior to polling.
At the same time, voters largely do not view public corruption through a partisan political lens. Among all voters surveyed, 71% agreed and 50% strongly agreed that government corruption is not a Democratic or a Republican problem. Voters are looking for congressional representatives to show they will not stand for corruption in the federal government, and will champion whistleblowers who bring that corruption to light.
Legislative Reforms to Support Whistleblowers
Although whistleblower protections for federal employees are enshrined in law, those laws still contain gaping loopholes that leave whistleblowers vulnerable. Whistleblowers regularly become targets of retaliatory investigations, when federal agencies choose to attack the employee reporting corruption rather than the corruption being exposed, often wasting agency resources and discouraging other potential whistleblowers from coming forward in the future.
For example, after observing avoidable deaths of American hostages abroad, Lieutenant Colonel Jason Amerine, a highly decorated Green Beret officer and combat veteran, disclosed information to Congress in 2015 that highlighted problems with the Army’s system for rescuing hostages. Despite federal law prohibiting interference with service members’ right to speak with Congress, the Army retaliated against Amerine by launching a criminal investigation for whistleblowing, revoking his security clearance, and suspending his pay. Although the Army eventually dropped its investigation, Amerine’s experience underscores how far powerful government actors will go to silence and discredit whistleblowers.
Retaliatory investigations can lead to serious consequences for whistleblowers like Amerine. But federal employees cannot even begin to challenge a retaliatory investigation until that investigation leads to personnel action against them. Most federal whistleblowers who face retaliation can take their claim before the Merit Systems Protection Board, which is authorized to determine whether an agency acted unlawfully in discriminating against or terminating the employee. However, federal whistleblowers prevail only a small fraction of the time in front of the administrative judges of the Merit Systems Protection Board, many of whom transition directly to the board from the same agencies accused of retaliation. Furthermore, the board only recently regained a quorum after five years of vacancies, and now faces a backlog of thousands of cases.
While there are many reforms Congress should enact to adequately protect whistleblowers across the government, two specific reforms are especially needed. First, there must be an explicit prohibition against retaliatory investigations, which would force agencies to investigate alleged corruption instead of going after those exposing it. This would help ensure that whistleblowers can safely come forward without the risk of becoming targets themselves.
Second, whistleblowers must have the right to take their retaliation cases directly to court to be heard by a jury of their peers, a right afforded to employees in nearly every other sector of employment. Having access to jury trials would reduce the backlog of cases at the Merit Systems Protection Board, but most importantly it would hasten relief for whistleblowers and encourage future whistleblowers to speak out, knowing that if their agencies retaliate, they will at least have a fairer chance of being made whole.
“These reforms would better protect whistleblowers and be a meaningful step toward addressing the corruption weighing on voters’ minds.”
The Whistleblower Protection Improvement Act would enact both of these crucial reforms — prohibiting retaliatory investigations and providing whistleblowers with direct access to jury trials — while providing additional protections. In POGO’s 2021 survey, 72% of Republican voters stated that corruption in government was a very big problem, surpassing their concerns about many other issues, including jobs and the economy, crime and gun violence, and health care. These reforms would better protect whistleblowers and be a meaningful step toward addressing the corruption weighing on voters’ minds.
Whistleblowers are uniquely positioned to expose misconduct and corruption that would otherwise remain hidden, and to shed light for the public and Congress on how to bring about broader accountability. Republican members of Congress who think their constituents do not care about these issues are mistaken. Many of the same people who voted them into office are concerned and waiting for Congress to take action. If their current elected representatives fail to enact reforms like the Whistleblower Protection Improvement Act to meaningfully address corruption in the federal government, Republican voters will take notice and may elect new representatives who will address their concerns.