Iowa City Press-Citizen
Last year, we praised President Obama for signing a long overdue update to the Whistle Protection Act of 1989. It was an update that Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley had been championing for more than a decade, and it codified a number of needed protections for those federal workers who come forward with evidence of illegal behavior, waste, fraud and mismanagement.
“It’s a constant battle to make sure that these patriotic citizens who shed light on overspending, mismanagement and layers of ineffective leadership within the federal government are protected,” Grassley said after the Nov. 27 signing in the Oval Office.
Grassley also highlighted the “more work” that still needs to done to ensure “whistleblowers are covered under the law and given the protections they deserve.”
One example of the “more work” Grassley mentioned came with the passing of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, which the president signed on Jan. 2. Some provisions in the wide-ranging legislation were designed to extend similar whistleblower protections to defense contractors who expose waste and corruption.
But the president surprised the legislation’s supporters by issuing a signing statement that could muddy the legislation’s effectiveness.
In the statement, Obama wrote that the projections “could be interpreted in a manner that would interfere with my authority to manage and direct executive branch officials.” As such, he claimed the prerogative to ignore those protections if they conflicted with the president’s power to “supervise, control, and correct employees’ communications with the Congress in cases where such communications would be unlawful or would reveal information that is properly privileged or otherwise confidential.”
Some members of watchdog groups such as the Government Accountability Project and the Project on Government Oversight have been vocal in their concerns about the ambiguities and uncertainties that the statement adds to the legislation.
Candidate Obama, after all, had been highly critical of then President George W. Bush’s habit of issuing signing statements that undermined the effectiveness of the legislation being approved.
Back in 2007, Obama promised he would “not use signing statements to nullify or undermine congressional instructions as enacted into law.” And in 2008, he said, “Congress’s job is to pass legislation. The president can veto it or he can sign it.”
The signing statement issued Jan. 2 was the 20th of his presidency. (He had only one in all of 2012.)
“Our Constitution does not afford the President the opportunity to approve or reject statutory sections one by one. I am empowered either to sign the bill, or reject it, as a whole,” the president wrote in the statement. “In this case, though I continue to oppose certain sections of the Act, the need to renew critical defense authorities and funding was too great to ignore.”
The concern over the whistleblowing protections was just one of a long list of problems with the legislation that the president worried could become violations of the separation of powers.
But the Obama administration’s poor record on whistleblower protections — with the president’s signing of last year’s law being the huge exception — has members of the whistleblowing community rightfully worried about how the president’s rhetoric will play out in his future actions.