|Auto help stays, whistleblower protection dropped from stimulus|
By LAUREN C. WILLIAMS, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - Maryland's congressional delegation won one and lost one in the negotiations over the $790 billion stimulus package awaiting a vote on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., managed to retain her provision to provide car buyers with tax relief in the bill, but Rep. Chris Van Hollen's, D-Kensington, amendment to protect federal and state whistleblowers was axed in the name of compromise.
The Senate voted Tuesday to include Mikulski's Auto Assistance Ownership Amendment in the then $900 billion bailout package, which would give a tax break to car buyers, allowing them to deduct loan interest and state sales taxes on purchases of new vehicles.
Mikulski's amendment, co-sponsored by Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., retroactively applies to purchases from Nov. 12, 2008, to Dec. 31, 2009. To qualify, families' total annual income must be under $250,000, and individuals under $125,000.
"Everyone wants to save auto manufacturers, but no matter how much government aid we give to auto makers, they can't survive if consumers don't start buying cars," Mikulski said in a statement.
But with a vote on the stimulus likely this weekend, sacrifices were made in order for Congress to reach agreement and Van Hollen's Whistleblower Protection Act was removed from the legislation.
"It is disappointing Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) insisted on removing these important protections. I am committed to reintroducing this bi-partisan legislation when we return in late February. It is essential we ensure accountability and transparency in government in order to protect the taxpayers," Van Hollen said in a statement.
The whistleblower amendment would have protected federal and state whistleblowers who report fraud and abuse. Van Hollen introduced the amendment with Rep. Todd Platts, R-Pa.
"It is abundantly clear that we must make investments now to stimulate our economy, get people back to work and get our economy back on track," Van Hollen said in a news release in January when the act was introduced to the stimulus bill. "However, the American people deserve to know that these investments are being well-spent, and that's why this bi-partisan whistleblower protection measure is so important."
But the removal of the bill from the legislation seems counter-productive to its advocates.
Eliminating whistleblower protections from the bill is "a license to fraud" and can cost the taxpayers billions, said Stephen Kohn, president of the National Whistleblowers Center. "It becomes difficult for an honest federal employee to stick their nose out."
The protection act would make it easier for federal and state employees to report potentially dishonest activity without suffering consequences from employers.
"It's inexcusable to let the spending start without letting the whistleblowers keep it honest," said Tom Devine the legal director at the Government Accountability Project.
And Kohn said: "You can't trade tax cuts for accountability."