Never has Congress spent as much money as quickly as we have in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are on track to spend trillions of dollars—roughly the equivalent to the U.S. cost of World War II, which lasted four long years. We will be paying COVID-19 bills for generations, so every dollar should be wisely spent; otherwise our regrets will be monstrous.
Unfortunately, with massive government spending comes massive opportunities for fraud. Slush funds are one category of abuse, such as when politicians steer money to their cronies. Fake victims are another problem. Don’t forget scam artists, the malevolent entrepreneurs who pretend to help their prey. Other offenders include people who overcharge or price-gouge us, simply because they can. Some brazen crooks even try to combine all these tricks in the same scheme!
The Truman Committee during World War II was the major congressional effort to reduce the inevitable waste, fraud, and abuse that accompany every crisis. These crimes and quasi-crimes are like the vermin that threaten every kitchen, no matter how clean. This includes the sausage-making factory of Congress. Instead of the usual congressional after-the-fact hearings, the Truman Committee tried to reduce abuse in real time, from the start of the war, and did so without undermining the war effort. Sen. Harry Truman (D-Mo.) knew that the public demanded both victory over Germany and Japan as well defeat of fraudsters here at home.
The best way for today’s Congress to track and prevent COVID-19 abuses is for Congress to strengthen the inspectors general (IGs) within each government agency. IGs have existed since 1978 but initially had few powers. Congress professionalized IGs in 2008 but needs today to give these watchdogs sharper teeth and longer leashes. After all, there is more taxpayer money than ever to protect.
In order to do that we’ve proposed legislation, the Inspectors General Independence Act, that would further depoliticize IGs by giving them seven-year terms (to give their investigations continuity) and protect them from partisan firing without cause. These simple but powerful reforms would make IGs genuine watchdogs instead of presidential lapdogs.
IGs have the sharpest eyes and ears because they are already on the inside of agency premises, working day-to-day with agency officials. They can watch crucial decisions as they are being made. For example, how will the $450 billion of emergency funds to the Federal Reserve from the CARES Act actually be distributed? Because that money can be leveraged ten-fold into trillions of dollars, these should be the most carefully guarded funds in human history.
To be sure, IGs are not the only solution. Like the Truman Committee, the special congressional committees that should be established to investigate impropriety will be vital safeguards in limiting abuse. But these committees will need data and reports, the crucial information that separates money well-spent from money wasted. Only then can successful hearings be held. IGs are the best, and sometimes the only, unbiased source of that data during our partisan times.
Many of IGs’ greatest successes are the abuses they prevent just because would-be malefactors know that IGs are on the job. Their mere presence deters wrongdoing. These savings are hard to document but everyone knows there are fewer crimes when police officers are on the beat.
These nonpartisan watchdogs have uncovered bad behavior under Republican and Democratic administrations, such as a lobbying scandal at the Department of Interior and excessive and wasteful spending by the General Services Administration on overly-lavish staff conferences.
Despite their success, the White House has never liked IGs. Presidents of both political parties want their own slush funds prior to re-election campaigns and certainly want only good news from their administration. But presidents’ official reasons for disliking IGs are more dignified, even posing as constitutional concerns: IGs are creatures of the legislative branch working within executive agencies. For this reason, President George W. Bush threatened to veto the Inspector General Reform Act of 2008 despite the fact that it passed the House with strong bipartisan support and it passed the Senate unanimously. Protecting taxpayer money should be the ultimate bipartisan cause.
You might think that IGs would be welcomed within agencies themselves for the bureaucratic hygiene they demand, but you would be wrong. IGs are often perceived as nosy colleagues who ask too many questions, and friends of journalists who might make headlines at your expense. But as congressional Democrats and Republicans have long understood, they can also help promote best practices and agency excellence, making the sort of history that your grandkids would be proud of.
Congress itself has not empowered IGs in the past as it should have. The seven-year terms and protection from political firing that we are proposing were also part of the original 2008 legislation but were stripped out. They were victims of compromise with the Bush White House and lack of congressional enthusiasm. Why would Congress not want the best watchdogs? Because members of the party that controls the White House may benefit from the slush funds and other wrongdoing. And members of any party are just not as excited about “good government” as the public might expect.
There is an old saying that, “all that’s necessary for evil to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing.” Perhaps it should be amended for government purposes to say that evil triumphs when inspectors general do nothing. The COVID-19 money is being spent; now is time to empower IGs and help make sure that it is being properly spent.
Reps. Jim CooperJim CooperOn The Trail: Census kicks off a wild redistricting cycle Biden emboldens establishment Democrats with ballot box wins Overnight Defense: Military justice overhaul included in defense bill | Pentagon watchdog to review security of 'nuclear football' | Pentagon carries out first air strike in Somalia under Biden MORE represents Tennessee’s 5th District, Stephanie MurphyStephanie MurphyBiden employs flurry of meetings to unite warring factions House passes bill to prevent shutdown and suspend debt limit GOP ramps up pressure on vulnerable Democrats in spending fight MORE represents Florida’s 7th District, and Ed CaseEdward (Ed) CaseMORE represents Hawaii’s 1st District. They are members of the Blue Dog Coalition, an official caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives comprised of Democrats who are dedicated to pursuing fiscally-responsible policies, ensuring a strong national security for the United States, and transcending party lines to get things done for the American people. Cooper is the House sponsor of the Inspectors General Independence Act, a bill that has been endorsed by the Blue Dog Coalition.