Will independent government oversight die in this pandemic?

Will independent government oversight die in this pandemic?
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Independent oversight of U.S. government activities is now more important than ever. We must ensure that the trillions of dollars Congress is authorizing to help American families and businesses survive the pandemic-related economic crisis are spent properly and effectively.

Yet, in the pandemic “fog of war,” President TrumpDonald John TrumpUSPS warns Pennsylvania mail-in ballots may not be delivered in time to be counted Michael Cohen book accuses Trump of corruption, fraud Trump requests mail-in ballot for Florida congressional primary MORE appears to be accelerating his dismemberment of the oversight function of independent Inspectors General (IGs). Congress created IGs in 1978 in the Carter administration after the Watergate scandal, with overwhelming bipartisan support. The IGs are to ensure that U.S. executive branch agencies properly administer the funds and programs in the public interest, without fraud, waste and mismanagement. In 2020, with CARES Act money being spent in historic amounts, Republicans and Democrats should  join together again to protect our decades-old system of independent, apolitical IGs from assault by the president.

Those who value the integrity and accountability of our American democracy must confront the reality that the Trump administration is intentionally weakening the key role of independent Inspector Generals (IGs). He has sent clear signals to the 73 Inspectors General who oversee the integrity of our federal government that anyone questioning the administration’s actions — even if it is their job — will be subject to public criticism, political pressure and even summary dismissal.

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In the space of the last few days President Trump fired Michael Atkinson, the highly regarded IG for the U.S. intelligence community, in apparent retribution for informing Congress of a whistleblower’s report of inappropriate administration political pressure on Ukraine. Trump followed this by publicly ridiculing the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) IG’s findings that hospitals face severe shortages of equipment to fight COVID-19, demanding to know the IG’s name and implying that the report was “political.” Less than 48 hours later, he demoted Glenn Fine, the Defense Department’s Acting IG since 2016, effectively preventing Fine from chairing the congressionally-mandated Pandemic Response Accountability Committee established to oversee CARES Act resources.

President Trump’s recent actions fit a pattern. In his first months in office he rescinded the nominations of four Obama-era IGs without appointing replacements and threatened to fire those IGs already in office. In his FY2019 budget he sought to cut more than $63 million from IG offices. In late 2019, the president called the Justice Department’s IG’s findings that the FBI was justified to open an inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election a “disgrace” and the FBI inquiry a “witch hunt.”

To rebuild trust in government in the wake of Watergate, President Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterPresidents, crises and revelations Trump: Obama's eulogy of John Lewis a 'terrible,' 'angry' speech Big bank hypocrisy: inconsistent morals to drive consistent profits MORE launched tough negotiations with Congress to achieve a proper balance of transparency and accountability between the executive branch and Congress. Those negotiations led to his signing of the original Inspectors General Act in 1978, which was a product of strong bipartisan congressional support.

The independent IGs, originally 12, were to be appointed by the president on the basis of merit, not political leanings, with Senate confirmation. It was one of many bipartisan ethics and accountability reforms passed during the Carter years in the wake of the Watergate scandal. Since then, support for the role of independent IGs in promoting government integrity and accountability has been consistent across Republican and Democratic administrations — until now.

President Reagan signed an amended IG Act in 1988 adding 30 new IGs in federal agencies.  President George W. Bush gave the IG’s law enforcement authority and passed the IG Reform Act of 2008, which established the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE), comprised of all the federal IGs. President Obama, in responding to the 2008 financial crisis, included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 several IGs to oversee that huge expenditure of public money. Yet, that federal rescue effort pales against the magnitude of the CARES Act. The 2010 Dodd-Frank Act then set the parameters for IGs for federal boards and commissions created to deal with the financial crisis. The bipartisan 2012 Whistleblower Protection Act, under which Michael Atkinson acted, added a requirement that each presidentially-appointed IG designate a whistleblower’s protection ombudsman. And more recently, Republican Senator Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleySenate leaves until September without coronavirus relief deal COVID-19 relief talks look dead until September  The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - The choice: Biden-Harris vs. Trump-Pence MORE, a champion of watchdogs, joined Democrats in calling upon President Trump to justify his summary firing of IG Atkinson.

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In his signing statement for the $2 trillion CARES Act President Trump asserted that the Constitution allows him to block reports to Congress from the Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery, an IG position just established by Congress on a bipartisan basis. The recent flurry of presidential actions to undercut and sideline IGs as his administration spends historic amounts of public resources to address the pandemic should give Congress and every American grave concern about whether these resources will be used apolitically and in the public interest.

Congress should act now to protect the integrity of the CARES Act programs it launched with virtually unanimous bipartisan support. Congress should take concrete, immediate steps to ensure that the IGs remain independent of political pressures, including from any president,  are never fired without appropriate cause and have the resources and authorities to do their jobs. In particular, Congress must provide the bipartisan oversight necessary to assure the massive amount of resources being marshaled to fight the pandemic, are used wisely, equitably, and effectively.

Stuart E. Eizenstat helped negotiate the 1978 Inspectors General Act as President Carter’s Chief White House Domestic Policy Adviser; he is the author of President Carter: The White House Years, and also held several senior positions in the Clinton Administration. Anne Pence served as G8 and international policy advisor at the State Department in Republican and Democratic administrations, as a senior policy advisor to the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and as a USAID Mission economist.