A History Lesson for Newly Minted Watchdog Warriors
In 2008, Congress unanimously approved the Inspector General Reform Act to promote political independence of agency watchdogs and discourage outside interference with their duty to combat fraud, waste, abuse and misconduct. This law followed a handful of cases that involved inspectors general pulling their punches when investigating George W. Bush administration officials and generally mismanaging their offices — issues that I investigated at the time.
The 2008 law also required the president to provide Congress with advance notice and reasons before removing a Senate-confirmed inspector general. This measure was intended to prevent political tampering with oversight.
Less than a year after the law was enacted, President Barack Obama, who co-sponsored the legislation as a senator, violated it by failing to detail why he fired the inspector general of AmeriCorps, Gerald Walpin, beyond vaguely citing a loss of confidence. I pushed the administration to provide more detailed reasons and held up an agency nominee until I got more information.
Fast-forward to 2020. President Trump fired two inspectors general, citing loss of confidence. Again, I pushed for more information. And again, I blocked nominees to force compliance with the law — a move that shouldn’t have surprised anybody familiar with my largely lonesome, four-decade crusade to promote government oversight.
In the end, both presidents provided some dubious rationales for firing the watchdogs, and in both cases the outcome remained unchanged. That’s because the Constitution clearly gives the president sole authority to manage executive branch staff. The 2008 law sought to deter IG removals for reasons beyond their own failure to effectively oversee their agencies.
Now, two consecutive administrations from both political parties have proven that the law isn’t working as intended. Despite a clear congressional record to the contrary, a court even ruled in the Walpin case (which the Trump administration recently cited in a letter to me) that the law doesn’t require greater detail beyond its “minimal statutory mandate” to justify a removal.
So I’m introducing bipartisan legislation on Thursday to clear up any ambiguity about Congress’s expectations when presidents decide to fire inspectors general. This legislation beefs up the mandate of advance notification to require “substantive rationale, including detailed and case-specific reasons” — terms that the court said were missing from the 2008 law.
To address conflicts of interest that could arise by temporarily replacing inspectors general with political appointees, the bill requires acting IGs to be selected from senior ranks within the watchdog community. It also would help safeguard ongoing investigations during transitions of inspectors general and limits the use of administrative leave following removals.
This bill uses lessons from history to empower good IGs while respecting the constitutional separation of powers. Inspectors general who aren’t up to snuff can still face consequences. After all, government is less accountable if bad IGs are allowed to stay in office.
It’s really this simple: If inspectors general are doing good work, they should stay; if not, they should go. If the president is going to remove an inspector general, there’d better be a good reason. And there’s absolutely no good reason to leave an IG seat vacant for an extended period. These guidelines apply to all administrations, Republican or Democrat.
Too often, matters with inspectors general are seen through a political lens. I’ve made a career out of pushing for greater accountability in administrations controlled by both political parties, but it’s often a struggle to get colleagues on both sides of the aisle — and the political press corps — to pay much attention to oversight matters.
Few cared in 2002 when I pushed the Department of Health and Human Services inspector general to resign over whistleblower complaints about poor staff management. Little mind was paid in 2009 when I shined a light on the sudden departure of Amtrak’s inspector general, who’d signed a gag order in exchange for a significant payout. There were no screaming headlines in 2015 when the Obama administration blocked a broad swath of the IG community from accessing records needed for oversight. As recently as February, bipartisan concerns about an ineffective inspector general largely went ignored — even after my staff briefed the media.
That all changed when President Trump got involved.
I hope the sudden interest in government oversight has more staying power this time around. Fair-weather fans of accountability, who come and go with each election cycle, only serve to politicize and weaken oversight.
I will continue to champion inspectors general, whistleblowers and robust government accountability regardless of who occupies the White House or has the majority in Congress, just as I’ve always done. No amount of shrieking from Twitter resisters or shortsighted and misguided pundits will change that.