Members in both chambers have stepped up their oversight of inspectors general to root out corruption and ensure impartial audits of federal agencies, opening another front for a Congress that has aimed to check expanding executive power.
While careful to emphasize their gratitude to the approximately 60 federal IGs who save the government billions each year by unearthing fraud, waste and abuse, lawmakers involved in the effort said they believe IGs’ appointments are overly politicized by the executive branch and that they occasionally become too comfortable with the very agencies they should be investigating.
On the other end of the spectrum, some Members also are concerned that conscientious IGs are pressured by agency heads to suppress unflattering findings.
“I think the bottom line is that Congress loves inspectors general but needs to professionalize them,” Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said.
According to Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, some of the current problems stem from a failure on Capitol Hill to supervise the IG community in past years.
“Congress was always supposed to have been conducting oversight of the executive branch and largely they have not been,” she said. “What happens when agencies have too much influence over IGs … is that Congress ultimately is not getting the accurate inside view of an agency’s operations.”
Several Congressional committees have held recent hearings on the topic, and bills have been proposed by Cooper — who has been pushing for IG reform for several years — as well as Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).
Collins is the ranking member on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and her bill, the Accountability in Government Contracting Act, was the subject of a panel hearing Tuesday.
The measure contains sections that would increase IGs’ salaries while forbidding them to take cash bonuses from agency heads. The change is meant to prevent agencies from rewarding IGs who make them look good by failing to undertake vigorous investigations.
It also requires that IGs who are selected by agency heads be chosen “without regard to political affiliation and solely on the basis of integrity and demonstrated ability.”
Such merit requirements already are in place for presidentially appointed IGs, who, unlike agency appointees, must be confirmed by the Senate.
Supporters of merit selection say it is necessary to reduce the influence of political patronage and assure that IGs are independent enough from the agencies they investigate to conduct thorough audits and expose waste and corruption, tasks that Collins said are of vital importance.
“That’s a critical role and if an IG is not sufficiently independent or if the IG is not sufficiently qualified … then the taxpayers are the losers,” she said.
The bills proposed by McCaskill and Cooper are more extensive and would create the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency within the executive branch. It would be made up mostly of IGs who would create policies for their community and police their peers.
This council already exists under the authority of two executive orders, one for each of its subsets (the PCIE for presidential appointees and the ECIE for agency appointees), but these bills would nullify the orders and re-create the council under an official act of Congress.
The two almost identical bills also would allow IGs to submit their budgets directly to the Office of Management and Budget and to Congress rather than having to go through their agencies. This could prevent agencies from pressuring IGs to suppress findings by threatening their funding.
They also would create fixed seven-year terms for IGs, during which they could only be fired for one of several pre-established reasons. IGs would not be limited to serving only one term.
Meant to increase job security by making it harder for agencies to fire IGs who have done too good a job exposing corruption, the fixed-term idea has gotten a lukewarm reception because some critics say it would make it too hard to fire IGs who are merely incompetent.
“Typically, ‘inefficiency’ is included as one of the grounds for removal, but that term is difficult to define or apply,” Justice Department IG Glenn Fine said in written testimony submitted to the Homeland Security panel for a hearing last week.
While these bills address several problems, at least one question remains partially unanswered: what to do when the executive branch fails to discipline IGs that Congress believes are performing poorly.
The poster child for this debate has become Robert Cobb, who serves as NASA’s IG. Reviews by the PCIE as well as the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Space, Aeronautics and Related Sciences and the House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight have concluded that Cobb appeared not to be independent enough from Sean O’Keefe, who served as NASA administrator until February 2005, and that he created a hostile work environment.
Current agency head Michael Griffin has defended Cobb, who has denied these charges.
The PCIE recommended action up to and including firing Cobb earlier in the year, and since then Congress has been hungry for punishment. But only the president or agency heads can fire IGs, and Cobb’s only sanction has been mandated leadership training classes.
McCaskill, who served as a state auditor before becoming a Senator, has expressed frustration with the way the case was handled and has suggested that a better system should be in place.
But enforcing merit-based selection appears to be as far as legislators see themselves going because few to none would support giving Congress the power to fire IGs in the executive branch or revoke its confirmation of presidential appointees.
McCaskill said she has thought about whether Congress should be given any of those added powers but felt including something to that end in her bill “would maybe sink the ship” and engender partisan disputes.
“There are days where this place feels like a partisan food fight,” she said. “With a fresh majority and a new minority … just the feel of this place — it worries me.”
There also are separation-of-power concerns. “You have to be careful of overreaching by either branch,” Cooper said.
While the current IG structure dates back to the Inspector General Act of 1978, these watchdogs have often gone under the Congressional radar, and increased scrutiny could bring about more exposure of corruption. From 1997 through June 2007, the PCIE and ECIE received 387 complaints against IGs, which led to 17 investigations, according to written testimony from Interior IG Earl Devaney, who sits on the integrity council.
But during this time period, lapsed Congressional interest created an atmosphere where potential whistle-blowers “didn’t want to put their heads up out of the foxhole,” McCaskill said.
Even without additional Hill oversight, IGs brought in $9.9 billion in potential savings from audit recommendations and $6.8 billion in investigative recoveries last year alone, according to a recent report from the integrity council.
“The more important news is that IGs are doing an awesome job policing waste, fraud and abuse,” Cooper said.
None of the three current IG bills has a clear path to passage yet. Collins plans to combine forces with McCaskill and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to create a more expansive bill on the Senate side, and Cooper’s bill has been referred to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
That panel’s chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), called it a “good bill” but said he has not made any decisions about how and when it will move forward.