If a federal agency is found guilty of violating someone's civil rights, the Department of Justice pays any monetary damages. Taxpayers foot the bill, while the offending agency is all but unaffected.
The "No Fear" bill (officially titled the "Notification of Federal Employees Anti-Discrimination and Retaliation Act of 2001"), considered the first civil rights legislation of the 21st century, would make government agencies responsible for their actions. Under the provisions of the bill, an agency would have any monetary damages paid from their own budget. The bill also provides additional protections for whistleblowers that expose abuse, mismanagement and fraud.
No Fear would protect people such as former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) employee Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo. Dr. Coleman-Adebayo filed a lawsuit against the EPA claiming senior management discriminated against her because she is a woman and an African-American. She further claimed she was hindered by agency supervisors in her attempts to meet a request by the South African government for EPA assistance in helping people exposed to the toxic ore Vanadium.
In August of 2000, a jury awarded Dr. Coleman-Adebayo $600,000 in damages from the EPA for enduring a hostile work environment.
Under the No Fear bill, a federal agency found guilty of discrimination or trying to silence a whistleblower would pay any damages awarded from its own budget. Taxpayers still ultimately pay, but the offending agency would "pay," too, by being forced to tighten its belt. This is only fair. If we taxpayers are caught speeding, paying the fines might mean we couldn't do something fun like buy a new stereo or go to the movies. Shouldn't the government face consequences when it does wrong, just as we do?
Debate over legislation such as this should be as tranquil as it gets. For a while, it was. Last October, the unlikely duo of House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), a House manger during the Clinton impeachment hearings, and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), a liberal member of the Congressional Black Caucus, co-sponsored the No Fear bill. It was unanimously passed.
But then the bill went to the Senate.
It took until March for Senator Joe Lieberman's (D-CT) Senate Governmental Affairs Committee to move the bill to the Senate floor. But the bill still waits for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) to schedule a vote.
According to those working for Senate approval of the No Fear bill, politics is slowing the progress. Liberals in the Senate who control the flow of legislation don't want to give President George W. Bush the pleasure of promoting and signing the first civil rights legislation of the new century. Following this rationale, they apparently are willing to wait until the Democrats regain the White House to seriously discuss the issue. If you ask me, it's petty.
This bill is too important to fall victim to stall tactics. The longer the No Fear bill is stalled, the longer it will be before federal agencies are effectively compelled to respect their employees' civil rights. And the longer it is stalled, the longer it will be before federal employees are empowered to reveal corruption and incompetence without fear of reprisal.
Earlier this year, researchers conducting a study for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service knowingly submitted false samples of lynx DNA. A whistleblower revealed the disingenuous action before any data could be used to create regulations that hurt property rights in falsely designated lynx habitats. In 2001, a government cartographer falsified a map showing caribou calving in arctic areas proposed for oil exploration. Although a lie, the myth of endangering wildlife was one factor that led to the defeat of legislation authorizing new Alaskan oil exploration and is helping to continue our nation's continued dependence on oil from international hotspots like Iraq and Venezuela.
These misdeeds were uncovered. What other governmental injustices are yet to be found? The No Fear bill would make it safer for whistleblowers to go public about corruption.
Seen in this light, it's not difficult to understand why both ends of the political spectrum support the No Fear bill. Conservatives such as Representative Sensenbrenner, liberals such as Representative Jackson-Lee and even the Reverend Al Sharpton all support it. It's only political posturing by the President's opponents that seems to block its progress.
The rest of America works under rules and consequences - we
should expect the same from our government.
(Syd Gernstein is a research associate for Project 21. He can
be reached at [email protected].)
Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.