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Recapping Important Wins for Health, Safety and Democracy in the 2017 Defense Authorization Bill

Every year, Congress works to pass the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), an annual bill that sets the budget for the U.S. Department of Defense, among other provisions. The NDAA for Fiscal Year 2017 – currently awaiting President Obama’s signature – contained a grab bag of policy provisions affecting whistleblowers, open government policies, workers, and consumers.  ICYMI: We are recapping four important victories for health, safety, and democracy that were part of this year’s NDAA final legislation.

Whistleblower Protections

In 2015, the U.S. Government Accountability Office documented a stark reality for military whistleblowers who challenge the retaliation they face for bravely reporting waste, fraud, and abuse. These servicemembers endure lengthy delays in their cases and are rarely successful when they file retaliation complaints.

One of the most significant reforms contained in the final NDAA is a prohibition of retaliatory investigations against whistleblowers. This victory is important – prolonged investigations serving only to harass and intimidate individuals for exposing corruption have devastating effects for these whistleblowers and their families. By closing this loophole, lawmakers have greatly expanded existing protections for military whistleblowers.

Preserving the Freedom of Information Act

Due to pushback from open government advocates, lawmakers removed provisions from the NDAA that would have limited the applicability of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Not only were these new proposed exemptions unnecessary, but also they would have been contrary to the public interest by shielding from disclosure important information regarding the actions of the military. To limit the public’s access to this information in essence creates a carve-out for the Pentagon from FOIA’s broad right-to-know. As an open government watchdog organization, Public Citizen can attest to the importance of FOIA in holding government agencies accountable. We commend lawmakers for removing this dangerous provision during the conference process.

Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order

President Obama signed the Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order (EO) on July 31, 2014 to require companies bidding on federal contracts to disclose past labor law violations. The EO also includes a provision prohibits federal contractors from forcing their employees to arbitrate discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault claims. In 2015, Public Citizen and our allies in the Fair Arbitration Now coalition submitted comments in support of the regulations implementing the EO, sending a strong message that access to the courts is a fundamental American right that should not be discarded in the fine print of contracts.

While the future of the EO unfortunately remains uncertain, it now faces one fewer obstacle.  During NDAA conference committee negotiations, lawmakers removed harmful provisions that would have exempted certain defense contractors from complying with the EO.

Consumer Protection

Finally, the NDAA includes language ensuring that military housing is as safe as possible for servicemembers and their families and free from known hazards.  Specifically, the NDAA includes provisions that mitigate the risk of death and catastrophic injury posed to military children caused by corded window coverings from military housing. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has documented the strangulation and asphyxiation hazard to children caused by window covering cords for decades. Moreover, as recognized by the provision’s sponsor, U.S. Sen. Blumenthal (D-Conn.), military families are at a unique disadvantage to mitigate this hidden health hazard due to frequent deployments, relocations, and temporary housing.

However, even as we celebrate these important victories achieved through the NDAA process, our work isn’t over yet. Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division will continue to hold lawmakers accountable for their work on health, safety and democracy when the 115th Congress convenes next month.  Tune in to Citizen Vox to stay informed about all of our work in the coming Congressional session.