The government offices responsible for rooting out waste, fraud and abuse at federal agencies and for leading investigations based on whistleblower complaints have been operating at a disadvantage on several fronts, according to testimony at an April 20 House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing.
Witnesses who currently or previously worked as inspectors general told the committee that too many Offices of Inspector General are operating without permanent leadership and that those leaders are not safe from politically motivated firing when the president does not approve of their investigations or findings.
The Securing Inspector General Independence Act of 2021 in the Senate would require the president to establish just cause for removing or placing on non-duty status a particular inspector general from a list of rationales outlined in the bill. That IG is then allowed to remain on the job for 30 days, while Congress determines whether the stated rationale is justified.
The bill responds to a series of high-profile IG firings that took place over a couple of months under the Trump administration, which only included the justification that the president had lost faith in that individual.
“I support a for-cause removal provision, with cause being defined as permanent incapacity or serious misconduct,” said Clark Ervin, former IG for the Department of Homeland Security.
“The stated cause should be documented so that its accuracy can be scrutinized by Congress and further tested in the court of public opinion.”
Pending legislation would also put pressure on the president to fill a vacant IG position within a certain timeframe and prevent an agency official from serving as acting IG in the interim.
“The fact is that administrations from both parties have selected acting inspectors general from senior management political positions within the agencies to be overseen, creating actual and perceived conflicts of interest and undermining independence,” said Kathy Buller, IG for the Peace Corps and executive chair for the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency Legislation Committee.
Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., noted that her Accountability for Acting Officials Act would mandate that in IG vacancies, the next highest official at an OIG — usually the deputy IG — would automatically assume that role, rather than let it go to an official at the agency being overseen.
Even acting IGs without ties to agency management are perceived as less impartial than permanent, Senate-confirmed officials, and those in an acting capacity are less likely to fill critical senior-management positions in their offices, to avoid looking like they are too directly steering policy.
And OIGs in general have been strapped for workforce resources, with some offices like the U.S. Election Assistance Commission OIG operating with only one full-time employee.
“According to the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency records, of the 76 inspector general offices, 18 have fewer than 10 employees. And as a result, some of these simply do not have the resources needed to do the job that we expect them to do, as Congress,” said Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga.
CIGIE itself has had issues with resources, as the council has no dedicated appropriations, relying on congressional funding for specific projects or the borrowed time of member IGs to accomplish its goals.
This is especially true for CIGIE’s integrity committee, which is responsible for investigating allegations against OIGs themselves.
“The best thing that you could do for the integrity committee is to get additional resources for it. Right now, we have a very small staff, and the chair of the committee, who is an inspector general himself, has to be involved in overseeing I think nine investigations right now on top of his full-time day job,” said CIGIE Chair and National Science Foundation IG Allison Lerner.
“It’s an untenable situation and if CIGIE had an appropriation, if we had dedicated resources for the committee that would enable us to hire a senior investigative attorney to oversee the work and a cadre of investigators available to do these investigations, instead of having to beg, borrow and steal from our colleagues across the inspector general community, I think we would be in a much better position to do these cases, handle them well and handle them in a more timely fashion.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., also advocated for adding a former IG to CIGIE as a means of incorporating an experienced voice that does not have an agenda related to their current work.
“I see at least a couple of advantages,” said Ervin. “One is, arguably, any former inspector general would add heft to CIGIE in its oversight role, with regard to the inspector general community. Two, if that person were a former IG who had served for a considerable period of time, and there are many, that person over time would have developed some perspective, would have seen it all, as it were.”
Jessie Bur covers the federal workforce and the changes most likely to impact government employees.