As lawmakers in Congress have engaged in thorny political matters over the past two years, including foreign policy crises and major spending proposals from the Trump and Biden administrations, a new House office has quietly been conducting critical work to support House of Representatives staff who may have questions on (or seek resources about) working with federal and private sector whistleblowers.
The House Office of the Whistleblower Ombuds was established a little over two years ago, with the Rules package for the 116th Congress, and opened its doors on February 14, 2020 with a non-partisan mission of “providing education, training, and guidance for effectively working with whistleblowers.” When Shanna Devine, a long-time expert and advocate for whistleblowers, was appointed as the first Director of the Office, NTU President Pete Sepp said that:
“Time after time, National Taxpayers Union has worked with Shanna Devine on key whistleblower issues involving a wide range of fiscal concerns, from taxpayer rights abuses to contracting fraud to misspent agency funds. In each instance she has displayed remarkable depth of knowledge, coalition skills, and managerial talent – all of which will serve her, the Congress, and American taxpayers superbly in the new House Office of the Whistleblower Ombudsman.”
Fortunately, the Office’s work in its first two years has met and exceeded NTU’s expectations. The Office has provided valuable services and communications to hundreds of House Members and staff at an extraordinarily efficient cost to the American taxpayer. The Office had a budget of just $1 million in FY 2021, less than two one-hundredths of one percent (0.02 percent) of Legislative Branch budget authority and less than one ten-thousandth of one percent (0.0001 percent) of total discretionary budget authority in FY 2021.
With that small budget, the Office and its staff of four have provided Congressional staff with more than 130 trainings on how to work with whistleblowers and have offered Congressional staff approximately 200 consultations on specific whistleblower cases. The Office has also interacted with hundreds of Congressional staffers from both parties in their short existence. While NTU doesn’t take any taxpayer dollar spent by the federal government lightly, it is clear to us that the Office of the Whistleblower Ombuds is providing a strong return on investment for the institution of Congress and for the tens of millions of taxpayers that members of Congress represent.
In February 2020, Sepp added in his statement on Director Devine that – as NTU has long noted – whistleblower protections are taxpayer protections. Though whistleblowers can sometimes face scorn or derision, especially from political figures who stand to be embarrassed or challenged by whistleblower allegations, there is a long history of courageous individuals standing up and speaking out against waste or abuse of taxpayer dollars.
That’s why conservative lawmakers like Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and former Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC; later a chief of staff to former President Donald Trump) and liberal lawmakers alike have long voted for (and defended) robust whistleblower protections in federal law. The Senate Whistleblower Protection Caucus includes members across the ideological spectrum, from Sens. Grassley and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) to Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Ed Markey (D-MA).
The Office of the Whistleblower Ombuds is quietly doing important and non-partisan work to help House members work more effectively with constituents, federal employees, or private-sector workers who come to a Member or Committee of Congress to blow the whistle on wasteful spending, fraud, or abuse of power. Even one whistleblower allegation – if properly acted upon by Congress or a federal agency within the executive branch – could save taxpayers millions or even billions of dollars in funds that would otherwise be misused or misspent.
NTU looks forward to seeing even more progress from the Office of the Whistleblower Ombuds in its third year, and we encourage every Member of Congress to continue supporting the mission and diligent work of the Office and its staff.