Let the sun shine in

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Sweeping dirt under the rug violates the golden rule of Housekeeping 101. Out of sight may be out of mind, but covering it up doesn’t make it clean. The same is true in government. And yet, the federal bureaucracy thumbs its nose at this common-sense principle.  

Agencies don’t just encourage conscientious employees to sweep unpleasant truths under the rug. Many agencies actually force employees to sign on the dotted line, a written pledge to keep quiet, called a “nondisclosure agreement,” or NDA. These NDAs can seem deceptively legitimate. However, agencies often require employees to agree to these gag orders without informing them of their rights and obligations to report wrongdoing to Congress or inspectors general.

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Even though federal law protects their right to do so, employees are led to believe that they have signed away their rights to speak outside the chain of command. As a result, employees witnessing wrongdoing often remain silent.

But silence isn’t golden when a culture of “mum’s the word” comes at the expense of good government. The taxpaying public has a right to know about the government’s dirty laundry, whether it’s unscrupulous Medicare billing practices, retaliation against Food and Drug Administration scientists for reporting concerns to Congress, fiscal mismanagement at the Defense Department, or reckless law enforcement policies at the Justice Department. That’s why I’ve long championed the law that ensures that these gag orders have exceptions to protect legitimate whistleblowing.

Fortunately, bipartisan congressional efforts I spearheaded to create the “anti-gag” protections were adopted in 1988 and included in successive annual spending bills until last year. Then, in November 2012, the bipartisan Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (WPEA) permanently and expressly codified in federal law that any violation of the “anti-gag” provision is a prohibited personnel practice.

The new federal law requires that every U.S. government nondisclosure agreement must contain an explicit statement notifying employees that NDAs do not trump their individual rights and obligations under the law relating to communications to Congress, reporting misconduct to an inspector general or any other whistleblower protections.

Based on a congressional review I conducted, however, it appears that this law is too often ignored. As an original co-sponsor of the WPEA and the co-author of its bipartisan anti-gag provision, I wrote the fifteen departments of the executive branch to evaluate their levels of compliance with the anti-gag provision of the WPEA. Unfortunately, based on the responses to my letters: 

• Only one department, the Treasury, was able to document implementation of the anti-gag provision;

• Eight departments were able to document only partial implementation; two others were unable to demonstrate even partial compliance; and

• Four departments thumbed their noses entirely and did not even bother to respond to the congressional inquiry.

With 15 federal departments administering trillions of tax dollars, all hands on deck are required to help expose and deter waste, fraud and abuse. Whistleblowers, in particular, are in a unique position to expose wrongdoing and mismanagement. Unfortunately, the culture of silence used to gag whistleblowers before their reports see the light of day seems endemic to the executive branch.

Resisting accountability and transparency is a persistent problem no matter which party controls the White House. President Obama signed the WPEA and its anti-gag provision into law nearly a year and a half ago. It should have been fully implemented by now. It’s time to for the administration to own up to its paltry record on implementing these important protections and resolve to do better.

Transparency and accountability are not partisan issues. It is in the public interest to let the sun shine on waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement. Whistleblowers protect the integrity of government. Let’s make sure that they receive the full protections and rights promised to them under the law. Unleashing whistleblowers to help weed out wrongdoing will make for the ultimate spring cleaning.  

Grassley is the senior senator from Iowa, serving since 1981. He sits on the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry; Budget; Finance; and Judiciary committees.