Senators join call for IGs' independence

Legislation aimed at ensuring that inspectors general remain independent and effective watchdogs gained momentum July 11 when the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee said he intended to hold a markup on such a bill this session.

“We will bring forward legislation in this session on the IGs,” Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) said at a hearing.

Two committee members have already introduced bills that would bolster IGs’ watchdog role.

The Accountability in Government Contracting Act, introduced earlier this year by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the committee’s ranking member, contains a section addressing IGs. Collins’ bill would strengthen their subpoena power, raise their pay while prohibiting them from receiving bonuses and bolster their independence by requiring agency leaders to give Congress 15 days’ notice of their intent to fire an IG.

“It is important that inspectors general are selected, compensated, protected and empowered in ways that will enhance their services to our country,” Collins said.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) introduced the Improving Government Accountability Act, which has provisions similar to Collins’ legislation but goes further in many respects. It would establish a fixed, seven-year term for IGs and let them make direct budget requests to Congress and the Office of Management and Budget.

Although a similar bill introduced a few years ago did not succeed, recent reports of agency interference and conflicts of interest regarding IGs have resulted in renewed calls for legislation, lawmakers say.

“Truly independent inspectors general may have been retaliated against by their agency heads, while other inspectors general have created the appearance of not being independent enough,” Lieberman said.

At the hearing, committee members indicated some level of bipartisan support for the legislation. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said McCaskill’s bill impressed him. But, he added, “I think it needs to be fine-tuned a bit.”

Clay Johnson, OMB’s deputy director for management, repeated the agency’s opposition to some of McCaskill’s proposals, such as the fixed, seven-year term for IGs. Johnson said the general level of IG work was superb.

“I don’t thing there’s a problem that warrants a [fixed] term, Johnson said. IGs should be fair and independent evaluators, he added, not feared by agency heads as junkyard dogs.

“If we compare the federal government to dogs in general,” Lieberman said, “I would say that the canines are ahead.”

It was the second hearing in two weeks on whether the IGs need more authority. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s Government Management, Organization and Procurement Subcommittee heard from current and former IGs June 21.

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

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