New Congress should unmuzzle government watchdogs

As we ring in the new year, we have a new Congress and a new legislative agenda. Both parties ought to be in agreement about one government success over the past 40 years: the role of the office of inspectors general (OIG). 

But both parties view the OIGs with suspicion because they are designed to tell the truth, however inconvenient.  A short history lesson is needed.   

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Just over 40 years ago, Congress enacted the Inspector General Act of 1978.  This law was enacted after a dark period in our history, including misconduct by the very highest levels of government, such as illegal wiretaps on American soilan enemies list and the misuse of agencies — including the IRS — to harm those who spoke out against the president. 

Many of those targeted were members of the press. In response to these revelations, Congress enacted a series of laws to curtail misconduct, including the Ethics in Government Act of 1978, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 and perhaps most importantly, the Inspector General Act.

Forty years in, we rely on the inspectors general to keep government honest. In the last decade alone, consider the following: leaking by the acting director of the FBI; misuse and compromise of State Department communications by the secretary of State; and the failure to detect the largest Ponzi scheme ever.

While both parties should support watchdogs, this is not our reality. Both parties, and for at least three presidential administrations, (those of Trump, Obama, and George W. Bush), we have neglected the OIGs.

There are many ways in which one can measure presidential disdain toward OIGs, but I believe the most important measures are: nominations, protection and budget. Each are discussed here.

Nominations

There are 73 federal office of inspectors general, and each is led by an inspector general. Yet, each inspector general is not appointed in the same manner — 37 require a presidential nomination while 36 require appointment by the head of agency. 

It is rare in which I can give sincere approbation to the current administration, but in terms of nominations, President TrumpDonald John TrumpHow to stand out in the crowd: Kirsten Gillibrand needs to find her niche Countdown clock is on for Mueller conclusions Omar: White supremacist attacks are rising because Trump publicly says 'Islam hates us' MORE has nominated, with some notable exceptions, more inspectors general than his predecessor. 

President Obama was notorious for his long war with his inspectors general and left many of the top posts vacant, sometimes for thousands of days. This was most likely because by not nominating inspectors general, President Obama was able to interfere with OIG work.    

Inspectors general are called upon to make tough calls and personally approve reports of investigation and audit reports, many of which can have career and policy implications for the highest levels of government. 

It is very difficult — if not impossible — to make such decisions when there is no inspector general and when the OIG is being led on a temporary basis. 

History demonstrates that the acting inspector general, who most likely would like to be appointed into the position on a permanent basis, tries to curry favor with the sitting president or head of agency.

Protection

Another measure of support (or lack thereof) for inspectors general is through job security. There are few jobs as lonely as serving as the inspector general or his or her deputy or assistant IG. When there is no permanent inspector general, the risks to the deputy or assistant IG, as I learned personally, can be high. 

Neither the Trump nor Obama administrations have been kind to the employment security of the inspectors general. However, as with nominations, the Obama administration was far less kind to sitting IGs and their senior staff, particularly those who did their jobs and reported inconvenient truths.

While I rate the Trump administration as kinder to the tenure of OIG staff overall, his administration has not been without spectacular fumbles, the largest of which was the attempt to muzzle the acting inspector general of the Interior Department, who, at the time, was engaged in multiple investigations into then-Secretary Zinke.

That muzzling failed, as did the secretary’s tenure. So perhaps both administrations are tied — for being bad.    

Budget   

Regarding budget, the green lifeblood of any government organization, the Trump administration has not been kind to the OIGs. While the budget for a number of cabinet departments has actually increased, the OIG budgets at the same departments have been targeted for decreases.   

This makes no sense because studies show that for every $1 spent by inspectors general, they recover $17 in waste, fraud or abuse against their respective department. There must be another reason for the proposals to cut OIG budgets. We all know what that reason is. Perhaps the president is trying a different tack than his predecessor in order to muzzle or chain the watchdogs.

As we ring in 2019, we must unmuzzle and unchain the watchdogs. The new-look Congress can help by focusing on the three measures listed here, both with regards to the OIGs and the special counsel.     

David P. Weber is a professor at the University of Maryland, where he teaches forensic accounting, fraud and ethics in Maryland’s undergraduate, masters and MBA programs. He is an attorney, certified fraud examiner and private investigator. He is the former assistant inspector general for investigations at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the SEC’s chief investigator. You can follow him on twitter @umd_dpweber