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Five ways Congress can strengthen the independence of inspectors general

By | April 28, 2020

Inspectors general identify fraud, waste and abuse in agencies and provide independent, impartial analysis and recommendations on how to improve the federal government’s performance. Their work has been critical during surges of federal spending, including major disaster relief, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and reconstruction efforts, the 2008-2009 financial rescue and stimulus, and now the more than $2 trillion response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Each of these crises brought an urgent need for funds to protect the public’s health and safety and also significantly raised the risk of waste, as well as fraudsters preying on federal funds. Congress should encourage the IGs to work with agencies to prevent waste, fraud and abuse, rather than see taxpayer money squandered and report on it after the fact. 

We have held senior positions in both the executive and legislative branches and have seen firsthand the benefits of the system that allows IGs to independently report their findings to agencies and Congress. With unprecedented federal spending ahead of us, Congress and the administration would benefit from a fresh look at ensuring IGs can do their jobs.

For IGs to fulfill their roles successfully, they must be able work without interference from agency leaders. Here are five ways Congress can preserve and strengthen the independence of the IGs:

  1. Join Sens. Grassley, Warner, Wyden, Lankford and Portman and send public letters of support for the IGs’ role. Every member of Congress, from both sides of the aisle, should join this effort.
  2. Change the length of service from an indefinite term to a renewable one that spans administrations, while only allowing removal for cause—such as inefficiency, neglect of duty or malfeasance in office. Sen. Murphy recently introduced a bill embracing these concepts.
  3. Update the Federal Vacancies Reform Act to ensure the independence of IG offices when an IG position becomes vacant. For example, Congress should require that only the deputy IG, a senior official from that IG office or a senior officer within the broader IG community can become the acting IG when a position opens.
  4. Use its financial power to ensure IGs have access to agency records and can conduct independent, nonpartisan audits and investigations. For example, when the Department of Commerce restricted IG access to records in the previous administration, the Senate successfully compelled the agency to reverse course by threatening to halt funding for its general counsel. Congress similarly could withhold appropriations if an agency lacks a qualified and either nominated, acting or confirmed IG to carry out investigations.
  5. Continue to provide adequate funding for Oversight.gov, the website for IG reports, which promotes transparency and accountability. Future funding for the site is not yet assured. Each member of Congress should educate the public on how taxpayers benefit from the IGs’ independent, nonpartisan oversight.

Calls to strengthen the independence of IGs are not new. Congress most recently bolstered IGs in the Inspector General Empowerment Act of 2016, which included a provision reaffirming IG access to agency records. Good government groups have weighed in, including the Bipartisan Policy Center, which issued a report supporting congressional efforts to independently fund Oversight.gov and encouraged Congress to coordinate more closely with the IGs to strengthen oversight efforts. 

Read more about our congressional oversight work.


Troy Cribb