Friday, June 23, 2006

Legislation Added to Defense Bill Would Restore Free Speech Rights Canceled by Supreme Court for Federal Government Workers on the Job

WASHINGTON - June 23 - The Senate yesterday acted quickly to plug a government accountability loophole created less than one month ago, when the Supreme Court’s Garcetti v. Ceballos decision canceled constitutional free speech rights for government workers carrying out their job duties. Senate bill S. 494, which includes that reform amidst a general overhaul of the Whistleblower Protection Act, was agreed to by unanimous consent as an amendment to the 2007 National Defense Authorization Act, passed 96-0 last evening. For the last three Congresses, the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) approved similar legislation, but until yesterday Senate leaders had refused to permit a floor vote.

The House version of the defense bill does not address whistleblower rights, although the House Government Reform Committee has passed an even broader-ranging version of the Senate reform, with two bills (HR 1317 and HR 5112) that together provide jury trials for whistleblowers and extend protection to national security employees and government contractors. The fate of S. 494 will be determined by a conference not expected until late in the session. But the Senate action makes it a foregone conclusion that federal whistleblower law will be strengthened. The remaining questions are – How much stronger will it become, and will rights be extended to all government workers and contractors who defend taxpayers?

The Senate vote is a milestone in a six year campaign by the Government Accountability Project (GAP) and a good government coalition that has swelled to 30 citizen organizations, spanning the ideological spectrum from taxpayer watchdogs and national security professionals, to civil liberties coalitions and federal labor unions.

GAP Legal Director Tom Devine commented, “We’re elated – it is long overdue for Congress to protect federal workers and declare war on government misconduct. The Senate acted quickly and responsibly to close the accountability gap created by the Supreme Court. This unanimous Senate mandate for whistleblowers proves there is a political imperative among voters, and a viable base in Congress to restore open government. Now the question is whether House leaders get the message.”

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