The Ripon Forum

Volume 55, No. 6

December 2021

It’s Time to Shore Up the Independence of Federal Inspectors General

By on December 14, 2021

by TROY CRIBB

Since passage of the Inspector General Act of 1978, Congress has provided strong bipartisan support to inspectors general (IGs) as indispensable for bringing accountability and transparency to the federal government. Now, out of concern for incursions into IG independence during the last administration and a recognition of the need for vigilance over the roughly $6 trillion approved for the COVID response and infrastructure spending, Congress and the administration are taking a fresh look to ensure that IGs can do their jobs.

Across the federal landscape, there are 38 inspectors general appointed by the president (with all but one subject to Senate confirmation), along with 37 IGs appointed by agency leaders. The IGs and their staff of auditors and investigators identify waste and abuse in agencies, provide impartial analysis and recommendations on how to improve agency performance, and independently report their findings to both agency leaders and Congress.

In the previous fiscal year, the collective findings and recommendations of the IGs represented over $53 billion in potential savings — an approximate return of $17 for every dollar invested in the IG offices.

In the previous fiscal year, the collective findings and recommendations of the IGs represented over $53 billion in potential savings — an approximate return of $17 for every dollar invested in the IG offices.

For IGs to fulfill their roles successfully, they must be able to work without interference from agency and executive branch leadership. Across administrations, Congress has pushed back when IGs have appeared to have been marginalized, stonewalled, or fired for unclear reasons.

Just recently, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs advanced its version of the IG Independence and Empowerment Act with the strong bipartisan support of the committee leadership and with no opposition.

Among its provisions, the bill would require an administration to provide detailed, case-specific reasons prior to removing an IG from office and would limit use of administrative leave for IGs following the announcement of removal. When there is a vacancy in an IG position, the bill would require that an acting IG be selected from among senior IG officials.

The Senate legislation also addresses some concerns that led to a mostly party-line vote in the House earlier in the year by adding procedural safeguards for new authority that the House bill proposed for IGs to subpoena the testimony of contractors and former federal officials.

In addition to advancing the pending bipartisan legislation, there are other ways to strengthen the IG community:

* Agency leaders should establish productive relationships with IGs and communicate to their employees the need to cooperate with the IGs and provide them access to the information they need, an approach endorsed recently by the leaders of the Office of Management and Budget in guidance and best practices issued to agency heads.

* Administrations should be prepared to address IG vacancies quickly and identify in advance a pool of candidates who would be fair and objective. Some IG positions famously have remained vacant for years, undermining the stature of the offices. For example, the IG position at the government’s largest agency, the Department of Defense, has been vacant for more than 2,100 days (a nomination is now pending).

For IGs to fulfill their roles successfully, they must be able to work without interference from agency and executive branch leadership.

* Congress should consider creating a new model for the IG appointments. Longevity in service of IGs promotes independence and strengthens institutional knowledge. Congress should consider making the IG positions term positions that span administrations while allowing removal only for cause, such as inefficiency, neglect of duty, or malfeasance in office.

* The executive branch and Congress should support the IG community in finding new ways to collaborate. Within their agencies, IGs frequently examine issues that are crosscutting such as major management challenges or fraud detection. The IGs are best positioned when they have the resources and tools to leverage each other’s efforts.

* Congress should continue its support of Oversight.gov, which provides a central hub for IG reports, providing the public and the IGs themselves with a searchable repository of IG reports.

* If necessary, Congress should use its power of the purse so that IGs can do their jobs, including making sure IGs have access to agency records and can conduct independent, nonpartisan audits and investigations. For example, when the Department of Commerce restricted IG access to records during the Obama administration, the Senate successfully compelled the agency to reverse course by threatening to halt funding for its general counsel. Congress similarly could withhold appropriations if an agency lacks a qualified and either nominated, acting, or confirmed IG to carry out investigations.

* Congress should ask IGs to identify agency bright spots. Agencies are eager to learn from each other’s efforts to tackle common problems. Congress should encourage the IGs to help by highlighting successful efforts in their agencies that might be replicated elsewhere, in addition to exposing problems.

The IGs have been fundamental to day-to-day operations of federal agencies, but they also are critical during surges in federal spending that include major disaster relief, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and reconstruction efforts, the 2008-2009 financial rescue and stimulus spending, and now again with oversight of upcoming infrastructure projects and COVID relief spending. Congress even created a Special IG for Pandemic Recovery within the Treasury Department as well as a special interagency committee of IGs to oversee pandemic relief.

The network of IGs across the government has been a resounding success in protecting taxpayer dollars and guarding against abuses. The system must be protected from political interference and provided the resources and authority it needs to keep the government honest and protect the public interest.

Troy Cribb is director of policy for the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan, nonprofit  organization committed to building a better government and stronger democracy.

 

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