Congress

Slate of bills to protect feds and transparency considered in committee

The House Oversight and Reform Committee, the central avenue for many federal employee-focused pieces of legislation, held a hearing May 3 centered on six bills aimed at protecting government watchdogs and increasing transparency in the federal government.

The first and largest of the bills, the IG Independence and Empowerment Act, is designed to grant federal Offices of Inspector General greater authority to subpoena relevant contractors and former employees to conduct their investigations while also ensuring that the president cannot fire an inspector general without cause. The bill would additionally prevent the president from selecting an official within the overseen agency to an acting inspector general post, while a Senate-confirmed nominee has yet to be instituted.

The provisions outlined in that bill were examined at a previous committee hearing, where witnesses explained that the leadership and authority provisions for the government’s watchdogs were not sufficient for the IG’s to carry out their work.

“It completely undermines their ability to conduct fulsome investigations, and it’s not just former government employees who have left service that are left out of inspectors general jurisdiction, because of this lack of testimonial authority,” said Elizabeth Hempowicz, director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight, at the May 3 hearing.

“They’re also limited when they’re asking questions of government contractors and subcontractors. And we’ve seen just how exponential the potential for waste is.”

But some Republican members of the committee raised concerns at the May 3 hearing that the decision to limit how and why a president can remove an IG are designed as a political condemnation of IG firings under the Trump administration.

“Frankly, we don’t need to agree on how to apportion blame to effectively respond. Take vacancies and the over-reliance on acting officials as an example. We can all agree a few things are true: first, presidents are increasingly turning to acting officials to fill vacancies,” said Rudy Mehrbani, senior advisor at the Democracy Fund.

“Second, the Senate confirmation process takes twice as long as it did when President [Ronald] Regan was in office, creating perverse incentives for presidents trying to fill their team. And third, presidents are turning to creative and legally problematic maneuvers to fill positions, moves that are inconsistent with the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, if not the letter of the law.”

Zack Smith, a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, questioned whether such a law dictating when and how IGs can be fired interferes with the constitutional right of a president to select and manage their own executive leaders.

Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Ohio, also noted that several small IG offices lack the resources to follow potential instances of waste, fraud and abuse.

Two of the bills, the Whistleblower Protection Improvement Act and the Federal Employee Access to Information Act, would expand federal employee rights to protections against retaliation.

The first bill would grant federal employees the right to request a jury trail in the court system if they believe they were retaliated against for acting as a whistleblower.

The second bill would protect federal employees from retaliation specifically in cases where they requested documents on the agency through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The remaining three bills — the Periodically Listing Updates to Management Act, the Federal Advisory Committee Transparency Act and the Presidential Records Preservation Act — are designed to increase public transparency for what is going on at federal agencies and have generally bipartisan support.

The PLUM Act would update the publication of the Plum Book, a document released every four years that outlines approximately 9,000 top-level government positions and who currently occupies them.

Under the new bill, the Office of Personnel Management would be required to digitize the Plum Book and keep it regularly updated so that anyone could see who occupied which important positions at any time, rather than only once every four years.

James-Christian Blockwood, executive vice president at the Partnership for Public Service, also called on Congress to consider reducing the number of positions requiring appointment and Senate confirmation overall, as the sheer number often keeps agencies from getting or maintaining consistent leadership after each change in administration.

The Federal Advisory Transparency Act would require agency leaders to make appointments to such committees without consideration for political affiliation and to publish any potential conflicts of interest those committee members may have.

And the Presidential Records Preservation Act would require the White House to implement records management practices.

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