Statutory help for inspectors general

Lawmakers propose measures to safeguard the independence of federal agencies’ IGs

Improving Government Accountability Act

Inspectors general have been a potent force in making government accountable ever since Congress created the IG position 30 years ago. Now some members of Congress are mounting an effort to ensure that IGs remain independent and effective watchdogs for decades to come.

Many federal officials agree that IGs play a crucial role in government, but they often disagree on whether more measures are necessary to ensure the independence and accountability of their offices. Those disagreements, observers say, could threaten the success of legislative efforts to strengthen IGs.

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) has introduced the Improving Government Accountability Act, which would give IGs greater protection when an agency executive or the president wants to fire them. 

Cooper’s legislation has the support of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who announced June 28 she would introduce similar legislation in the Senate. “I’m thrilled to have her leading the fight over there for IG reform,” Cooper said.

McCaskill said several recent incidents have prompted questions about IGs’ objectivity and accountability. For example, a House committee has been investigating NASA’s IG, Robert Cobb, who has been accused of using his position to shield the Bush administration from embarrassing failures at the agency. McCaskill also cited the case of the Homeland Security Department’s IG, Clark Kent Irvin, who alleged he was not reappointed because some people in the agency had labeled him a traitor and turncoat.

Such incidents prove the need for the Cooper bill, McCaskill said. “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.”

Reports that some IGs feel compromised prompted Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) to hold a June 21 hearing on IG reforms and solicit comment on Cooper’s bill.  Towns is chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Government Management, Organization and Procurement Subcommittee.

Some current and former IGs expressed support at the hearing for Cooper’s legislation. “There is widespread support in the IG community for many provisions in the bill,” said Phyllis Fong, the Agriculture Department’s IG. Kenneth Mead, former IG at the Transportation Department, said independence is critical to preserving IGs’ effectiveness. “The job of the inspector general is to speak truth to power,” he said.  

Others, however, have expressed doubts about Cooper’s bill. A panel of government oversight experts organized by the Government Accountability Office offered mixed views on many provisions of the measure, according to a GAO report on the panel’s findings released at the House hearing. A majority of the panel’s experts did not favor establishing a fixed, seven-year term for IGs, saying that could disrupt current agency/IG relationships.

Panelists also had mixed views about a provision in Cooper’s legislation that would allow IGs to make direct budget requests to Congress and the Office of Management and Budget. GAO auditors had other concerns about the legislation’s provision for giving IGs separate personnel authority. “In providing such authorities to the IGs, there could be a great disparity in how this would be implemented by each IG office,” the auditors wrote.     

Opponents of the proposed legislation include Clay Johnson, OMB’s deputy director for management. In testimony at the hearing, Johnson argued that the general quality of IG work is superb, accountability is strong, and IGs should not act as “junkyard dogs.”

Cooper said he was open to modifying his bill and would participate in a bipartisan effort toward that end. “I’m confident we can convince our colleagues to strengthen the role of IGs and give them greater independence,” he said.

Tarallo is a freelance writer in Washington.


IG protections in legislationNew legislation before the House would
further protect the independence of federal inspectors general. That bill, and a similar measure to be introduced in the Senate, would safeguard the independence of IGs by:
  • Having them serve fixed, seven-year terms.
  • Giving them separate personnel authority apart from the agencies in which they serve.
  • Permitting those officials to submit their budget requests directly to Congress and the Office of Management and Budget.

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