As congressional Republicans and Democrats sparred over the reach of federal inspectors general in the waning days of 2015, lawmakers ignored years of fraud and abuse during their watch.
“IGs are our eyes and ears within the executive branch. But IGs cannot do their job without timely and independent access to all agency records,” warned Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
“Since 2010, a handful of agencies, led by the FBI, has refused to comply with this legal obligation,” Grassley charged.
The Department of Justice claimed its inspector general could not access certain records until department leaders granted permission.
“Requiring prior approval undermines inspector general independence. That is bad enough, but it also causes wasteful delays,” Grassley said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee chairman said IGs for the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Commerce and the Peace Corps have encountered similar stonewalling.
In July, Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel issued a memo asserting that Congress did not really mean “all records” when lawmakers first authorized IGs in 1978.
In response, Grassley and 13 other senators introduced the Inspector General Empowerment Act to affirm that Congress intended IGs to access all agency records. An escape clause, however, allows “other laws” to shield certain information.
Even that mild legislation was too much for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. The Nevada Democrat used Senate privilege to bottle up the bill with an anonymous “member hold.”
Dan Epstein, executive director of the government watchdog group Cause of Action, said Congress has only itself to blame for a lack of transparency and accountability.
Epstein noted that IGs “issue more subpoenas than anyone, including DOJ attorneys.” But investigations rarely rise to the level of agency heads.
“Former IRS Inspector General Russell George conducted an audit of the agency, not an investigation,” Epstein pointed out.
Many IG subpoenas target individuals in the private sector — not the government officials IGs are tasked to oversee.
“The BofA-Countrywide settlement originated with the IG at the Department of Housing and Urban Development,” Epstein said by way of example.
Far from being toothless, IGs — who are supposed to be the in-house watchdog of government — can issue subpoenas without a warrant or court approval.
Appointed by the president and confirmed by Congress, IGs are inherently political tools that work within the departments they ostensibly investigate. “The idea of giving them more power should be quickly dismissed,” Epstein said.
Instead, he recommends that Congress exercise its constitutional authority to serve subpoenas and protect the public purse.
“Where was the congressional subpoena for Hillary Clinton’s email server? Where was the deposition? There weren’t any,” Epstein said.
Through the IGs, “Congress has delegated oversight to the executive branch itself,” he concluded.
With a Democrat in the White House, Republicans say IGs aren’t doing enough. For now, Epstein observes, “Democrats want IGs to be lambs.”
“The Department of Veteran Affairs has needed an inspector general for 582 days. Yet the president has not made an appointment,” Sen. John Cornyn said during a Judiciary Committee hearing Aug. 5.
“If the Department of Interior, which has gone without an IG since 2011, is any indicator, it will be another 1,714 days before President Obama gets around to making an appointment. That’s three times longer than he’s been in office,” the Texas Republican said.
Kenric Ward writes for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Contact him at [email protected]. @Kenricward