President TrumpDonald TrumpGOP grapples with chaotic Senate primary in Pennsylvania Trump social media startup receives commitment of billion from unidentified 'diverse group' of investors Iran thinks it has the upper hand in Vienna — here's why it doesn't MORE recently fired several of the federal government’s most respected inspectors general--prompting a rare outcry of bipartisan criticism of the White House. Congressional Democrats were instinctively quick to condemn the president’s actions. But several prominent Republicans, including Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Rob Portman (Ohio), and Sen. James Lankford (Oklahoma), urged President Trump to end his war against federal watchdogs.
But the White House has doubled down its opposition to independent oversight, dismissing State Department IG Steve Linick last month, a well-regarded official with impeccable credentials. In all, President Trump has fired or demoted at least four of these vital watchdogs.
Last week, Grassley announced that he was holding two Trump nominations until the administration provides reasons for the watchdogs’ firings. Given President Trump’s past reactions to criticisms from congressional Republicans, the Iowa senator may be waiting until after November for an answer.
But Congress cannot afford to leave federal watchdogs unprotected. Allowing a Republican president to strongarm and dismiss IGs erodes public accountability and trust in Congress and the fundamental operations of our government. It also establishes a dangerous precedent that future administrations could exploit.
Rather than hoping President Trump changes course, Congress should draft and pass bipartisan legislation to strengthen the Inspector General Act and related laws now.
This week, the Government Accountability Office issued a new report offering Congress a roadmap of recommendations for how to protect federal watchdogs. “Given the current challenges facing the federal government,” Comptroller General Gene Dodaro wrote, “the oversight provided through independent government audits and investigations is more critical than ever.”
GAO warned that real or even perceived threats to an inspector general’s independence undermines the watchdog’s value to Congress and the American public. The Comptroller General offered a range of recommendations for Congress to protect IG independence, such as: “amending provisions governing the removal of IGs to authorize for cause removal only,” strengthening administration reporting requirements about IG removals, or even amending the Vacancies Act to establish a succession plan within an Office of Inspector General to further protect independence if an IG is removed.
As well as creating new protections, Congress could remove incentives to fire IGs by limiting who can be acting IG and ensuring that ongoing, active investigations cannot be deep-sixed.
The Inspector General Act of 1978 was passed at a time when public confidence in government was low, and when many believed the nation was overmatched by its problems.
We face similar problems in 2020. We are confronting grave challenges that require national leadership. But the American public is losing faith in essential government institutions. It’s a fitting time to revisit that critical law and an important step to rebuild the American people’s trust.
Unfortunately, our current deep political divisions have rendered issues that were once bipartisan, such as protecting independent oversight, to be viewed through the lens of partisan politics.
For that reason, principled Senate Republicans should introduce legislation to strengthen the Inspector General Act honoring former Oklahoma Sen. Tom CoburnThomas (Tom) Allen CoburnBiden and AOC's reckless spending plans are a threat to the planet NSF funding choice: Move forward or fall behind DHS establishes domestic terror unit within its intelligence office MORE, who passed away this spring. The former doctor and citizen legislator from Muskogee strongly supported independent oversight, and regularly championed government watchdogs and their recommendations during his decade in office.
Coburn often went to the mat to protect these watchdogs from unwarranted political influence. When former General Services Administration IG Brian Miller was investigating corrupt practices by the head of the agency, there were tremendous forces attempting to squash his vital inquiry. Coburn provided the necessary cover for Miller to finish his work. As a result, a corrupt agency head was removed. This is what our lawmakers are supposed to do: Protect public servants doing good work on behalf of the American people.
While Senator Coburn would have scoffed at any legislation being named after him (he was known as “Dr. No” and often blocked earmarks and other vanity projects), tying inspector general reforms to his legacy would serve an important, symbolic purpose that he would support. It would remind many congressional Republicans that there was a time when they, too, strongly backed independent oversight of the executive branch.
From the COVID-19 pandemic to the national protests over police brutality and racism, the American public is losing confidence in our political leaders and government. Our federal watchdogs are needed now more than ever. Congress must protect them.
Keith Ashdown was Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee staff director and Dan Lips was the Committee’s homeland security director for former Sen. Tom Coburn.