Grassley’s power of oversight
After 27 years, the senator still relishes his role in fighting government waste
- By Jason Miller
- Jul 09, 2007
Charles Grassley’s office in the Hart Senate building is on the bottom floor near one of the entrances, a location that reflects its occupant’s seniority. The cool, dimly lit room where Grassley works is filled with family pictures, awards and mementos from a Senate career in which he has represented Iowa for 27 years.
It’s also the place where Grassley decides that parts of the federal bureaucracy and some of its leaders belong under his high-powered microscope. With help from a dedicated staff, Grassley, a senior Republican and ranking member of the Finance Committee, has aggressively and consistently ferreted out waste, fraud and abuse in federal agencies. Grassley is someone to whom federal employees turn when they feel they have no other redress.
The Defense Department case that made Grassley’s reputation as an investigator was a $700 toilet seat that he exposed in 1983. That instance of government waste opened the door to a career in which Grassley has focused on making a difference in ways that go beyond legislation introduced and speeches given on the Senate floor, his admirers say. It is a career that has earned him admiration and distrust.
Grassley has gone on to investigate many federal agencies, including the FBI, Internal Revenue Service and Social Security Administration. His current probes involve the General Services Administration and the Food and Drug Administration.
Grassley speaks in short, passionate sentences that showcase his Midwestern accent. Early in his career, Grassley said, he realized that oversight was one area in which he could make a difference, and he wouldn’t need the agreement of 50 other senators.
“I come from a philosophy of checks and balances,” he said during a recent interview in his Capitol Hill office. “Congress spends too much time legislating and not enough time doing oversight.”
With that as a conviction, Grassley has gone after Republican and Democratic administrations with the same fervor.
“Who is president is not a consideration,” he said. “I just happen to think the government is very inefficient, but not in a dishonest way. “There just isn’t a profit motive to figure out how to be more efficient.”
Grassley said his investigations are nonpartisan, unlike those that often spring up when a new party comes to power. Most of his inquiries originate with information he receives from federal employees who believe they have nowhere else to turn when they observe mismanagement or wrongdoing.
“I try to keep a constant drumbeat on oversight,” he said. “Most oversight I get involved in involves a great deal of money and the fraud and mismanagement that someone brings to our attention.”
In many ways, the modern-day whistleblower is Grassley’s creation. He sponsored whistleblower amendments to the 1986 update of the False Claims Act, a bill originally signed into law by President Lincoln. He also co-authored the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 for federal employees and included whistleblower protections in the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation to safeguard those who expose corporate waste, fraud and abuse.
Grassley said he has the highest respect for whistleblowers, which is why members of his staff always welcome them and listen to their complaints.
“They are the most patriotic people because they only come to me when they are disillusioned with the system,” Grassley said.
Grassley received the lifetime achievement award in May from the National Whistleblower Center for 25 years of standing up for people who try to expose waste, fraud and abuse.
“Over 25 years ago, Sen. Grassley had the vision to see the vital role whistleblowers must play in order to ensure that our government remains a government ‘of the people and for the people,’ ” said Bunnatine Greenhouse, a former Army Corps of Engineers contracting officer and highest-ranking DOD whistleblower, who spoke at the presentation.
Others admire Grassley’s courage as an investigator of government misdeeds. “Oversight is very unpopular and uncomfortable because, no matter what you look at, someone will be mad,” said Eric Thorson, the Small Business Administration’s inspector general and former chief investigator for the Senate Finance Committee, where he worked with Grassley. “They throw the word courage around a lot in Washington, but truth is, he has shown courage in many ways — in being willing to look at difficult subjects and protecting those people who come forward. He understands it and will go to any limit to protect people if they are right.”
Grassley also has strengthened the ability of departmental IGs to win battles against waste, said Charles Tiefer, a former House deputy general counsel and Senate assistant legal counsel. Tiefer is now an attorney at the Washington law firm Cuneo, Gilbert and Laduca.
“There is a common distinction in the Senate that there are show horses or workhorses, and Sen. Grassley has been a workhorse of oversight,” Tiefer said.
Not everyone agrees with Grassley’s oversight efforts, but many tolerate them, Tiefer said.
Steve Kelman, former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in the Clinton administration and a columnist for Federal Computer Week, is one who believes Grassley’s oversight often does more harm than good.
“My problem with a good deal of what Sen. Grassley does is that his orientation toward real or alleged scandal orients agencies to avoid ever making a mistake rather than trying to develop programs that generally work better, even at the cost of occasional mistakes,” said Kelman, now a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “I am sure his activities are well-intentioned, but I think the net result is often to make government work worse, not better.”
Others in Congress grin and bear what they believe is Grassley’s sometimes distasteful oversight, Tiefer said. “There are two Sen. Charles Grassleys,” he added. “The other Grassley is as big a tax cutter as anyone else in the Republican party. His party cherishes him regardless of his stance on oversight. He shepherded through President Bush’s three or four tax cuts for the wealthy.”
So although Grassley pursues investigations, such as his current probe into whether GSA gave Sun Microsystems special treatment during contract negotiations, the White House and other powerful Republicans let him go.
Bill Shook, a former Senate Judiciary Committee staff member who is now a procurement lawyer, said Grassley is viewed as someone who is quick to ask tough questions and willing to take a public stand on what he perceives as wrongdoing.
“He is a member that people who have complaints against the system can seek out and get absolutely a fair hearing,” Shook said. “He is a friend of those who are trying to make the system better.”
However, Shook added, many companies are not fond of Grassley’s investigatory campaigns. They believe Grassley goes too far in attacking them, he said.
Kelman said many of Grassley’s examples of credit card fraud turned out on further inspection to be misrepresented or exaggerated, and his focus on those instances threatened a procurement card program that Kelman described as “a major win for agencies and taxpayers.”
Thorson said he disagrees with Kelman’s view that Grassley is unfair to companies or goes too far in his criticisms.
“He has a tremendous sense of balance,” Thorson said. “With most big companies, if you slap them on the wrist, it doesn’t mean anything to them. He knows the appropriate response to get their attention.”
Grassley’s interest in GSA stems from a belief that something isn’t right, Shook said, and it isn’t a case of piling on after Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) began investigating GSA and its administrator, Lurita Doan.
Grassley said he began his investigation of GSA, like other inquiries he has pursued, because someone approached a member of his staff with evidence and asked for an investigation. Grassley doesn’t know precisely how many investigations he has under way because they ebb and flow, he said. “I rely on my staff’s investigative judgment. We are looking at where we can do the most good for the public.”