House Dems back bill to put guardrails around IGs
- By Natalie Alms
- Apr 20, 2021
A group of seven Democrats introduced a bill on Monday containing measures that they say would help shield inspectors general from political interference. It would, among other things, limit the power of the president to remove IGs and restrict who can serve as an acting IG.
During a hearing held by a subcommittee of the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Tuesday, Democrats pointed to events during the administration of former President Donald Trump as proof that reform is needed.
Last spring, Trump ruffled feathers during a series of shuffles in IG offices across government. That rash of actions included removing Michael Atkinson from his position as IG of the Intelligence Community. He is the official who advanced a whistleblower report about the Trump administration's moves in regards to withholding congressionally authorized funds to Ukraine, a report that eventually lead to Trump's first impeachment in the House.
"The political motives behind these personnel changes were hardly veiled," said chair of the Subcommittee on Government Operations, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). "The intent was clear – intimidation and obfuscation and obstruction … The former president set a dangerous precedent – that an IG can simply be removed because they're doing their job."
There are "gaps" in policy that "leave internal watchdogs vulnerable to politically driven interference," said Liz Hempowicz, the director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan intendent watchdog.
After Trump's string of IG removals last year, her organization heard from other IGs, she said.
"They were afraid that doing their jobs and going after the facts, wherever they may lead and without regard for how it would reflect on the president or others in political leadership, would be the end of their careers," she said.
One piece of the proposed IG Independence and Empowerment Act would limit the removal of IGs to documented "for cause" reasons, such as malfeasance, mismanagement or neglect of duty.
Although this proposal has raised constitutional questions concerning whether it would be in Congress' power to create such a limitation on the president's Article II authority, a Congressional Research Service report issued April 16 stated that Congress would, within certain limitations, be able to do so.
Another provision in the bill would limit who could serve as acting IG in the event of a vacancy to existing IGs at other agencies or senior staff members in an office of the inspector general.
Fifteen agencies currently lack an IG, according to tracking done by the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE). Some of these vacancies are longstanding. The CIA hasn't had an IG for 2,271 days, and the Department of Defense for 1,928 days. The CIA vacancy could be filled shortly; on April 19, President Joe Biden sent the nomination of Robin C. Ashton to serve as CIA IG to the Senate.
Other parts of the package include a requirement for Congress to be notified before an IG is put on non-duty status and the granting of subpoena authority to IGs for witnesses who aren't government employees.
"Last year, two presidential appointees were directed to serve as acting IGs for the agencies they served," said Kathy Buller, the IG of the Peace Corps and CIGIE chair.
One of these continued to also serve in agency management while serving as the acting IG, she said.
Having a political appointee in an agency serve in the agency's oversight capacity can put whistleblowers at risk of exposing themselves "to the agency leadership that they may have been blowing the whistle on," Hempowicz said.
"Administrations from both parties have selected acting inspectors general from senior management and political positions, creating actual and perceived conflicts of interest and undermining independence," Buller said.
Ranking member of the subcommittee, Jody Hice (R-Ga.), also pointed the finger to other administrations after calling his colleagues' talk about the Trump administration "attacks."
He and other Republicans focused much of their questioning on the oversight of election funds given by the state of California to a firm he said is linked to Biden in the run-up to the 2020 general election. They expressed their frustration with the Office of the Inspector General at the Election Assistance Commission, which they have been calling on to investigate this contract. Hice linked inaction at the office to a lack of funding and staffing at this and other IG offices.
Natalie Alms is a staff writer at FCW covering the federal workforce. She is a recent graduate of Wake Forest University and has written for the Salisbury (N.C.) Post. Connect with Natalie on Twitter at @AlmsNatalie.