Vacant positions leave Washington without watchdogs

On July 6, when Walter Shaub announced that he was resigning from his position as Director of the US Office of Government Ethics (OGE), America lost another important “watchdog.” Until very recently, most Americans probably heard the that term and pictured a canine with sharp teeth and lots of slobber, growling and ready to pounce. Hopefully that understanding has changed.

I have met and followed the work of the last four OGE Directors. When the others left, it was uneventful. Even the crickets were too bored to chirp. But Walt’s departure was different. Because of the history of stories detailing the struggle between OGE and the White House, Walt’s decision to move on from his post was big news.

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In my view, the value of the media coverage was that it cast a spotlight on a vital function in our government – the role of the watchdog. The OGE vets presidential appointees and enforces rules that govern the relationships senior government officials have while they are in office. We also have 73 inspectors general (IGs) whose offices are situated alongside federal agencies so they can ferret out fraud, waste and abuse of our taxpayer dollars.

Yet despite all the attention to Walt and his departure – a critical part of the story didn’t get told. OGE now joins a growing list of federal watchdog offices that have vacancies at the top. The gatekeepers are leaving…and in some cases, they left a very long time ago (a full list of vacancies is below). They’re exiting not only because the pressures of the job are immense; they’re getting out because we don’t compensate them for the value they bring to our country.

Of the 73 inspectors general that should be in place, 13 positions are now vacant. That might not seem like a large number, but consider some of the agencies they monitor: the Department of Defense, the NSA, the U.S. Postal Service, and the Social Security Administration. All places where questions of ethics and the use of money is critically important. Many of the positions are vacant because the White House has not identified, vetted and nominated candidates for congressional consideration. In some cases, an appointment has not been made by the appropriate agency head and/or board.

Walt used his departure to point out an important weakness in our federal system; that OGE has insufficient ability to insist on compliance with the regulations under its purview. He offered several recommendations about ways that OGE could be improved. I’d like to add a few more on behalf of all our watchdogs.

  • Filling the OGE and IG vacancies should be the highest priority. The work goes on for employees in these operations, and there are dedicated career professionals who will serve as interim leaders until a permanent appointment is made. But there’s a big difference between an agency that maintains status quo until the new head arrives and the entity with an appointed IG who holds the title and leads the charge. Pushing back against a federal agency (or the White House) when wrongdoing is found is no easy task.
  • Congress should review the compensation of IGs. The longer an IG remains, the more he/she becomes familiar with the agency and improves in the detection of fraud, waste and abuse. For that reason, IGs don’t have term limits, and they earn their keep. Many of them recover millions of dollars that would otherwise be mismanaged each year. Yet IG salaries remain fixed. It’s not reasonable to expect that these leaders will remain in the job if they can only receive a meager cost of living increase each year. Especially when their direct reports earn more than they do, simply because they are eligible to receive merit pay.

Part of the problem we face is that these vacancies don’t make or break elections, so appointments aren’t urgent. But the work of these watchdogs is essential to our maintaining good government. We need them, and we need to take care of them.

Vacant Watchdog Positions

Agency/Establishment Date Vacated

Department of the Interior*, December, 2011

Export-Import Bank of the US*, June, 2014

Central Intelligence Agency*, February, 2015

Department of Energy*, October, 2015

Department of Defense*, January, 2016

Postal Service, US, February, 2016

Office of Personnel Management*, February, 2016

Social Security Administration*, May, 2016

National Security Agency*, May, 2016

Small Business Administration*, December, 2016

Federal Election Commission, March, 2017

Intelligence Community, March, 2017

Department of Housing/Urban Development*, June, 2017

Office of Government Ethics*, July, 2017

*Presidentially appointed with Senate Confirmation

Patricia Harned is chief executive officer of the Ethics & Compliance Initiative (ECI). 


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.