When we elect leaders, we put our trust in them and in the departments they oversee to do the right thing when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable among us. But we can’t just give that trust blindly – not when so many special interests and corrupting influences are at play. It’s critical to ensure our federal agencies are carrying out their missions and upholding the law. Verifying the effectiveness of the USDA – the federal agency responsible for enforcing the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) – is the job of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of Inspector General (USDA OIG).

This month, the OIG acted appropriately and admirably when it included in its 2019 Annual Plan a much-needed audit of how the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service  (APHIS) inadequately oversees commercial dog breeders. The current system simply allows too many breeders to provide substandard care without any consequences or corrective action. We thank Reps. Mark PocanMark William PocanPelosi gets her swagger on Dems to reframe gun violence as public health issue The Hill's Morning Report — Will Trump strike a deal with Chuck and Nancy? MORE (D-Wis.) and Brian FitzpatrickBrian K. FitzpatrickMeet the lawmakers putting politics aside to save our climate Educated voters breaking hard against GOP Bipartisan group of lawmakers propose landmark carbon tax MORE (R-Pa.), who last year issued a joint, bipartisan letter calling on the OIG to initiate the new investigation.

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This action was long overdue. Despite a scathing 2010 OIG report detailing “major deficiencies” in APHIS’s enforcement of AWA standards for commercial breeders, the agency’s effectiveness and accountability have only declined in the last eight years. According to the agency’s own reports, enforcement this year alone plummeted

This comes just under two years after the USDA purged its breeder inspection database of critical information, hiding their documentation of puppy mill cruelty from consumers, advocates, and the general public. That important information is still largely missing, despite several attempts by lawmakers and animal welfare groups – including a lawsuit filed by the ASPCA– urging the USDA to restore this information in its entirety. As long as the USDA continues to conceal this information, the Inspector General may be the only actor able to uncover the reason for the USDA’s decline in enforcement.

The ongoing lack of transparency combined with weak enforcement of the minimal standards of care required under the AWA is a tragedy for the long-suffering animals in commercial breeding facilities. A new OIG audit will not only give us more insight into the agency’s shortcomings but will hopefully spur a much-needed elevation of AWA standards of care. Since the law’s enactment over 50 years ago, those standards have too often fallen short of their promise to adequately protect vulnerable animals.

The public has a strong interest in ensuring that government agencies represent their values when enforcing the law, and compassion for animals in need is one of our most deeply-held and widespread values. Reflecting those values and the people who hold them, we call for a swift and thorough investigation of APHIS by the OIG because, without it, vulnerable animals will pay the ultimate price.

Matt Bershadker is president and CEO of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).