House passes bill to strengthen authority of federal watchdogs

House passes bill to strengthen authority of federal watchdogs
© Greg Nash

The House passed legislation on Wednesday that would bolster the authority and independence of inspectors general responsible for conducting oversight of federal agencies.

Lawmakers largely voted along party lines, 221-182.

The bill comes a year after former President TrumpDonald TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal MORE dismissed or replaced the inspectors general of five agencies over the course of about six weeks, prompting concerns from Democrats that the decisions were rooted in retaliation for various oversight efforts of his administration.  

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“President Trump's actions struck at the heart of why we have IGs to provide independent oversight and a check on executive branch waste, fraud and abuse. No president should be allowed to retaliate against an IG for simply doing their jobs,” said House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn MaloneyOvernight Defense & National Security: US-Australian sub deal causes rift with France Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Emissions heading toward pre-pandemic levels Oversight Republicans seek testimony from Afghanistan watchdog MORE (D-N.Y.).

Under the legislation, inspectors general could only be removed for cause and would be granted authority to subpoena testimony from witnesses who aren't currently government employees. Inspectors general would also have to notify Congress if agencies refuse to provide access to requested information.

Rep. James ComerJames (Jamie) R. ComerOvernight Defense & National Security: US-Australian sub deal causes rift with France Oversight Republicans seek testimony from Afghanistan watchdog Republican requesting data, notes, emails in intelligence report on COVID-19 origins MORE (Ky.), the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee, argued that the legislation went too far and constrained a president's ability to rightfully terminate an inspector general.

"There are examples of a president rightfully terminating an inspector general. And I don't think that this bill is the right path to move forward. This is over-legislating," Comer said.

Comer also said that the provision authorizing subpoena authority for testimony from former federal employees could be abused by new administrations to undermine a previous president of the opposing party.

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"While it may be helpful for IGs to investigate certain allegations of misconduct, it also provides IGs with a tool that can be easily abused for political purposes," Comer said.

The dismissed federal watchdogs last year included Michael Atkinson, the then-inspector general for the intelligence community who had notified Congress of the whistleblower complaint regarding a phone call between the Ukrainian president and Trump, which ultimately led to the former president’s first impeachment.

Trump also dismissed Steve Linick, the State Department inspector general who had been investigating whether then-Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoChristie, Pompeo named co-chairs of GOP redistricting group America needs a new strategy for Pacific Island Countries Harris to hold fundraiser for McAuliffe ahead of Virginia governor's race MORE was using department staff to run personal errands for him and his wife. 

Three acting inspectors general were also dismissed by the former president. 

The acting Defense Department inspector general at the time, Glenn Fine, was initially tapped to lead the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee. But his removal meant he was subsequently disqualified from serving in the additional role.

Mitchell Behm had also been serving on the Pandemic Response Accountability Commission until his removal as acting inspector general for the Department of Transportation. Democrats had further expressed concern that his dismissal came as his office was looking into whether then-Transportation Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine ChaoSaluting FOIA on its birthday House passes bill to strengthen authority of federal watchdogs Biden at Sen. John Warner's funeral: He 'gave me confidence' MORE, the wife of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHouse to act on debt ceiling next week White House warns GOP of serious consequences on debt ceiling Lindsey Graham: Police need 'to take a firm line' with Sept. 18 rally attendees MORE (R-Ky.), had given Kentucky preferential treatment for grants. 

Trump had also openly attacked the acting Health and Human Services acting inspector general, Christi Grimm, for publishing a survey on hospitals' poor preparation for the COVID-19 pandemic. However, his nominee to replace Grimm atop the office was never confirmed by the Senate. President BidenJoe BidenHouse Democrat threatens to vote against party's spending bill if HBCUs don't get more federal aid Overnight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Haitians stuck in Texas extend Biden's immigration woes MORE has since nominated Grimm to serve permanently as the department's inspector general. 

"Why didn’t the I.G., who spent 8 years with the Obama Administration (Did she Report on the failed H1N1 Swine Flu debacle where 17,000 people died?), want to talk to the Admirals, Generals, V.P. & others in charge, before doing her report. Another Fake Dossier!" Trump tweeted at the time.

Trump maintained that he had the authority to remove the inspectors general, including those who he said were holdovers from the Obama administration. 

“We have a lot of IGs in from the Obama era,” Trump said at the time. “And as you know, it’s a presidential decision.”