Finding Glimmers of Hope on Capitol Hill

January 6, 2014 | 6:13 pm
Celia Wexler
Former contributor

The holidays are always a good time to take stock of the year, and to be grateful for the good things that happened. Although the media has labeled this the “do nothing” Congress, the news wasn’t all bad.

A victory for Public Health Service whistleblowers

One major victory for scientist whistleblowers occurred on the very last day in 2013 that Congress was in session. Both chambers approved the National Defense Authorization Act, a huge bill that mostly concerns funding for the Pentagon and military matters. But tucked away in the bill is a provision, advocated by a bipartisan team that includes Senators Mark Warner (VA), Susan Collins (ME), Chuck Grassley (IA) and Tim Kaine (VA), that greatly strengthens protections for military whistleblowers.

2013 wasn't all bad news in Washington. Congress accomplished some very important things, thanks to some hard working members. Photo: Yogin Kothari

2013 wasn’t all bad news in Washington. Congress accomplished some very important things, thanks to some hard working members. Photo: Yogin Kothari

Making the law stronger will help the scientists in the Public Health Service who are under the jurisdiction of the Military Whistleblower Protection Act, a toothless law that gave whistleblowers few protections. Indeed , in 2012 the Government Accountability Office extensively reported on the failings of the law and its poor record in protecting whistleblowers who complained that they had been retaliated against by federal managers.

The provision will give whistleblowers more time to make their case, and ensure that those judging their reprisal complaints are officials independent of the whistleblower’s immediate supervisors.

That’s good news for the 6,500 Public Health Service physicians, health care professionals, and researchers who work at more than 20 federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Homeland Security.

Our Center for Science and Democracy engaged our colleagues in the public health community, sending a letter to the Senate, urging approval of this provision in the final defense authorization law. In all, nine public health and consumer groups, including the American Medical School Association, the National Consumers League, National  Research Center for Women & Families, and the National Women’s Health Network supported our efforts.

White House releases an ambitious National Action Plan

Over the course of several months, the Center and our colleagues who work on transparency and accountability in government have been meeting with Administration officials on plans for its second Open Government National Action Plan (NAP), which was officially released in early December.

The plan has a three-year history. In September 2010, President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly, and urged nations to commit to increasing openness and accountability in their respective governments. Eventually, this effort received the support of 60 nations across the globe.

At the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Todd Park and his deputy, Nick Sinai, worked tirelessly to use technology to help agencies become more transparent to the public. David Sandler,  White House associate counsel,  understands the importance of whistleblowers to government accountability. These officials, and many other dedicated White House staff, were receptive to many of our suggestions, and the NAP reflects that. While not perfect, the NAP does offer a good starting point for many transparency and accountability reforms.

Elected officials who made a difference

Members of Congress certainly aren’t held in high esteem by the public. But many of our elected officials, and their staffs, value public service.

Sen. Tom Harkin (IA) has achieved bipartisan support for a law that will strengthen the FDA’s power to regulate compounding pharmacies. His work, and that of many House members, including Representatives Fred Upton (MI), Henry Waxman (CA), and Frank Pallone (NJ), may preserve patients from the devastation caused when drugs compounded by a substandard pharmacy infected hundreds of people with fungal meningitis.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (CT) chairs a Senate subcommittee that has examined the problems in a regulatory process that fails to protect the public. Through his hearings, letters and other public statements, he’s been a champion of a regulatory process informed by science and protected from corporate interference.

Sen. Edward Markey (MA) remains as strong an advocate for scientific integrity in the Senate as he was in the House.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (IA) has been a longtime champion of patient safety, whistleblower protections, and government transparency.

There are legitimate reasons we become cynical about our government.  But cynicism should not make us blind to people of good will on Capitol Hill and at the White House who do their best to serve the public, even when public service faces huge challenges. Let’s hope 2014 reduces our cynicism and builds on the modest progress we have made.