Richard Skinner says the role of inspectors general is to investigate, but some IGs have become the target of investigators
Some lawmakers from both parties are worried that agency inspectors general are vulnerable to political influences that, unchecked, could diminish IGs’ stature as unbiased and evenhanded overseers. Eager to forestall such occurrences, the House passed in October the Improving Government Accountability Act, the most significant reform proposed to the IG Act in almost 30 years. The Senate is considering its version of the legislation.
The president has threatened a veto.
Congress is seeking to fix a critical governmental function that some lawmakers have come to view as flawed. They say the rules by which IGs operate provide insufficient autonomy for IGs in some instances and inadequate means for swiftly removing them from office in others. IGs kept on too short a leash become lapdogs, critics of the current regulations say. Yet, IGs who are given too much rope risk hanging themselves in entanglements of the type that have made headlines.
“Too often, IGs are subjected to pressure by political appointees who want to stifle negative findings about their agencies,” said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), sponsor of the Improving Government Accountability Act. “In other cases, errant IGs violate rules with impunity because administrators don’t want to be seen firing the watchdog.”
The IG Act of 1978 created a new federal watchdog office, gave it teeth in the form of statutory authority to conduct audits and investigations, and set it loose to sniff out waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement at a dozen government agencies.
In the decades since, IGs saved the federal government billions of dollars, and their investigations led to thousands of criminal and civil prosecutions.
Congress mandated the neutrality of IGs, but over time, the landscape has changed: the IG Act has undergone several minor revisions, the number of statutory IGs has grown fivefold, and IGs’ workloads have mushroomed. In addition, expectations of governmental accountability have risen, and partisan politics has become more pronounced. In that harried, hyperscrutinized and politically pitched environment, remaining neutral has become increasingly challenging for IGs.
The roots of modern IGs extend to the 1960s and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, said Richard Skinner, inspector general at the Homeland Security Department. In the 1970s, expansion of federal grant programs, subsidies, welfare and public works projects resulted in the appropriation of “billions of dollars with very little oversight at all,” said Skinner, who has held government oversight positions for 35 years. Prodded by media reports of mismanagement and poor oversight — and a post-Watergate era desire to curb abuses of power — Congress created the IG corps to keep an eye on things.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the challenge of minimizing waste, fraud and abuse shifted as administrations sought to re-engineer and downsize government. As part of the overhaul, government embraced the concept of using contractors to get things done.
“The more contractors there are, the more oversight you require,” Skinner said.
“We are busting at the seams with work.”
Having realized the value of IG offices, Congress and department and agency leaders increasingly are asking IGs to investigate agencies, ferret out problems and certify successes. As a result, IGs are initiating fewer of their own investigations and doing more audits at the behest of others.
A similar trend has eroded the independence of the Government Accountability Office, which at one time set the agenda for 60 percent to 70 percent of its investigations, Skinner said. That figure has dwindled.
“Any time you get a request, there is probably some political motivation behind it,” Skinner said. “But I have never been threatened [or had anyone say] ‘If you don’t do this, we are g oing to come after you or cut your budget.’ ” As the political landscape shifts along fault lines separating red turf from blue, an effective IG must be “color blind when it comes to political parties,” Skinner said.
“You cannot be politicized.”
Is there merit to the suggestion that political interests have eroded the independence of IGs? A 2005 report by Democratic staff of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee concluded that IG appointments have become increasingly politicized during the Bush administration.
Analyzing IG appointments during a 12-year period, the committee found President Clinton typically appointed nonpartisan career public service employees as IGs.
His successor, President Bush, has tended to appoint individuals with ties to the Republican Party.
More than 60 percent of IGs appointed by Bush had prior political experience, such as serving in a Republican administration or on a Republican congressional staff, while fewer than 20 percent had prior audit experience. By contrast, Clinton’s IG appointees had prior audit experience more than 60 percent of the time and prior political experience in less than 25 percent of cases.
More than half of the IGs that Bush appointed contributed to Republican political candidates. About 25 percent of Clinton’s appointees made federal campaign contributions of any type.
Despite the appearance of political influence, statistical disparities don’t equate to actual malfeasance, according to defenders of the rules governing IGs. They argue that the system works well.
“I am not aware of any instance of the quality or quantity of an IG’s work being compromised by an agency head, nor of any IG being retaliated against by an agency head,” said Clay Johnson, the Office of Management and Budget’s deputy director for management and chairman of the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency.
“Some talk about the possibility of this happening but not of specific instances of its occurrence.… Many allegations are not substantiated.”
Johnson characterized aggressive and hard-nosed IGs of the type appointed by Clinton as “junkyard dogs,” according to Rolling Stone magazine, which described Johnson as Bush’s “ultimate loyalist…his prep-school pal from Andover and a roommate at Yale.”
Bills aimed at amending the IG Act in the House and Senate propose changes intended to “strengthen and clarify the authority, tenure, resources, oversight and independence of the inspectors general,” according to a recent Congressional Research Service report.
The proposals would affect the two classes of statutory IGs: federal establishment IGs and designated federal entity IGs.
The former are appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate and can only be removed by the president, except in cases of impeachment. Designated federal entity IGs are typically appointed and removed by the leaders of smaller agencies.
The Congressional Research Service reported that the bills under consideration would mandate several significant changes, including fixed seven-year terms with the possibility of reappointment and removal of IGs for cause only. The measures would also require notifying Congress in advance when the president or an agency leader intends to remove or transfer an IG. In addition, the legislation would ensure that Congress and OMB are notified about the budget requests that IGs submit to agency leaders.
The legislation also would replace the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency and the Executive Council on Integrity and Efficiency with a single Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. In addition, it would also create an Integrity Committee comprised of council members to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by I d officials in IG offices.
The Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit organization formed 20 years ago to expose excessive military spending, endorsed measures to bolster the independence of IGs. POGO’s executive director, Danielle Brian, in congressional testimony this past summer, said the Defense Department’s IG Office doesn’t have its own general counsel. Instead, it has relied for legal advice on lawyers assigned to it by DOD’s General Counsel. “You can see how this would significantly undermine the independence of an IG,” Brian said.
Among other recommended changes, POGO said, it is critical to provide the resources required for effective functioning of IG offices, some of which are severely understaffed. Beth Daley, the organization’s director of investigations, said safeguards should be in place to prevent agencies from using budget cuts to retaliate against IGs.
POGO has undertaken a long-term study of the IG system.
The Senate version of the Improving Government Accountability Act has several provisions not included in the House bill, such as a measure that would provide each IG with a general counsel. The Senate bill would prohibit IGs from receiving cash awards or bonuses, which could compromise the independence and integrity of their offices. The bill would require all IGs to be appointed without regard for political affiliation and solely on the basis of integrity and demonstrated ability in accounting, auditing, financial analysis, law, management analysis, public administration and investigations.
In October, White House officials threatened a veto of the bill in its current form. The administration objects to provisions that it says would circumvent the president’s constitutional authority to fire IGs.
“If we can’t keep government accountable to the people, we aren’t doing our job,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mich.), who introduced the Senate bill. “Inspectors General have been rooting out government waste and inefficiencies for three decades, and it’s time to update our laws to make sure that these offices have the tools and resources they need to remain independent and effective watchdogs for decades to come.” Pulley is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.