The balance of power may soon shift in Washington, followed by a realignment in Congress on oversight. Republicans who, under the Trump administration, have resisted investigating executive branch actions may feel differently about a Biden administration. Democrats who have led recent oversight inquiries into the current administration may want to give a Biden administration a honeymoon period.
But in these months leading up to the presidential election, it’s the right time for lawmakers from both parties to step back and recognize the importance and long-term value of independent oversight no matter who is in office. Restoring public confidence in American governance requires a renewed focus on transparency and nonpartisan oversight to curb wrongdoing and increase accountability.
In 2020, strong, independent oversight has been under attack. In particular, the mission of federal watchdogs has become increasingly politicized.
Recently, President TrumpDonald TrumpHeadaches intensify for Democrats in Florida Stormy Daniels set to testify against former lawyer Avenatti in fraud trial Cheney challenger wins Wyoming Republican activists' straw poll MORE has fired or demoted four respected inspectors general. Those actions have weakened the independence of all IGs and eroded public confidence in their work. Congress and the American public can’t help but wonder if future inspector general audits and reports will be tempered by the potential threat of a presidential firing.
This unfortunate politicization requires Congress to step up and strengthen IG protections. Several pending legislative proposals would help, including bills that would disallow firing an IG without specific cause such as mismanagement or misconduct; require the president to provide Congress with advance notice and a “substantive rationale” (including “detailed and case-specific reasons”) for an IG removal; and require each inspector general to prepare a succession plan, including designating a “first assistant” who would rise to the acting position if the IG were removed. Still other proposals would authorize IGs to challenge their removal in court or require the Council of Inspectors General to review all terminations.
Those types of reforms would reduce presidential incentives to fire or demote a federal watchdog for political reasons by eliminating the president’s ability to justify removal by claiming to have “lost confidence” in the IG and by ensuring the IG’s work would continue under the inspector general’s chosen successor.
The reforms would also be consistent with recommendations made by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office in a letter sent to Congress in June. “IGs serve a critical role in accountability and transparency in government,” Comptroller General Gene Dodaro wrote, “I urge Congress to use its constitutional oversight authorities to protect their independence.”
As former Democratic and Republican Senate investigators, we have seen firsthand both the bad and the good when it comes to politics and oversight. We have watched as some members have backed away from oversight when their party gained control of the White House. And we have also seen lawmakers who placed the principle of bipartisan fact-finding ahead of short-term political interests.
Our former bosses, for example, Sens. Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinOvernight Defense: First group of Afghan evacuees arrives in Virginia | Biden signs Capitol security funding bill, reimbursing Guard | Pentagon raises health protection level weeks after lowering it Biden pays tribute to late Sen. Levin: 'Embodied the best of who we are' Former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm dead at 85 MORE (D-Mich) and 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 (R-Okla.), partnered on a range of bipartisan investigations when they led the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, including inquiries exposing federal agency failures to stop Wall Street corruption and Social Security disability fraud. The two senators did not always agree on the solutions to the problems they identified. But both firmly supported a non-politicized, unfettered fact-finding process to develop the factual foundation needed for effective reforms.
Inspectors general do that critical fact-finding work every day. Dedicated civil servants in IG offices spend their careers working quietly on behalf of the American people to uncover the facts and help hold federal agencies accountable for their actions. Inspectors general routinely identify opportunities for taxpayer savings and reforms to strengthen government performance. They blow the whistle when federal agencies or programs are not following the law. Congress relies on their trusted and respected voices to inform the legislative process.
Even in our deeply politicized time, both political parties and the American public should recognize the value of accurate fact-finding, government transparency, and independent oversight. The Supreme Court has recently reaffirmed the importance of congressional oversight; Congress should do the same for inspectors general. As Sen. Levin once put it: “Good government requires good oversight.” Protecting inspector general independence to provide high-quality oversight deserves strong bipartisan support now and in the future, regardless of who controls the White House.
Elise Bean is director of the Washington office of the Levin Center at Wayne Law. Dan Lips is a director of cyber and national security with the Lincoln Network.