A committee that oversees federal inspectors general found in April that the watchdog for the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) had “abused her authority” and undermined “the integrity reasonably expected” of an inspector general.
Yet, more than two months later, President Joe 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 yet to remove agency Inspector General Laura Wertheimer, despite the watchdog’s recommendation to discipline or remove her.
His initial hesitancy is understandable. Inspectors general provide independent, nonpartisan oversight of federal programs and spending, uncovering abuse of power and wasteful spending within federal agencies. Protecting their freedom to do their job without fear of retaliation is crucial in order to ensure they are effective.
And there was a very public, bipartisan outcry when former President Donald 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 removed four inspectors general with little explanation last year, seemingly because he felt their findings were unfavorable to his administration.
But now, Biden has an opportunity to set a new standard for when it is actually appropriate to remove an inspector general.
After a three-year investigation, the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency’s Integrity Committee issued a report on Wertheimer and other leaders within the FHFA’s inspector general office, prompting two senators to call for Wertheimer’s removal. The investigation found that Wertheimer bullied staffers who cooperated with congressional oversight committees. But, because Wertheimer refused to turn over documents to the Integrity Committee, it was unable to substantiate other allegations against her — including that she curtailed audits under pressure from agency leadership.
All of this is incredibly alarming. This behavior goes against so many of the principles inspectors general are supposed to operate by. How could any administration put its faith in a watchdog tasked with investigating a federal agency if the watchdog herself obstructs investigations?
Biden needs to set aside any concerns that removing Wertheimer will appear retaliatory, as Trump’s firings did.
It is possible for Biden, and any president for that matter, to remove rogue inspectors general when they’re egregiously ineffective while still protecting the independence of the inspector general community as a whole.
He can reset the norm for when it’s appropriate to fire an inspector general and back it up by throwing his weight behind inspector general reform.
As it stands now, a president can remove an inspector general for any reason, though he must explain to Congress why he is doing so 30 days before the removal goes into effect. Congress expected that this requirement would keep presidents from removing aggressive watchdogs because they were doing their job well. Unfortunately, as written, a president only needs to tell Congress that he has “lost confidence” in an inspector general to satisfy this legal requirement, as became clear under the previous administration.
Biden should urge Congress to work with him to change that.
The IG Independence and Empowerment Act, which is up for a vote on the House floor this week, would mandate that inspectors general can only be fired “for cause.” If this law were enacted, an inspector general could only be removed if there is clear evidence of wrongdoing or failure to fulfill their duties. While the Supreme Court has struck down for-cause protections for agency leaders, including the FHFA administrator, these rulings would not apply to inspectors general since they don’t possess executive authority — the key deciding factor for the court.
Opponents of for-cause protections have argued that these rules could make it too challenging to remove an ineffective inspector general. But the process undertaken by the Integrity Committee to investigate allegations about Wertheimer and ultimately recommend disciplinary actions proves that it would still be possible to remove rogue inspectors general with for-cause protections in place.
And the administration should lean on that process going forward. Take the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, for example. Reporting by my colleagues at the Project On Government Oversight revealed that the inspector general, Joseph Cuffari, allegedly suppressed investigations related to the White House. Biden should place Cuffari on administrative leave and wait for the Integrity Committee to investigate these and other alleged failures because they go to the heart of whether he can function effectively as an IG.
We can only hope that the Integrity Committee doesn’t take another three years to issue a conclusion on another rogue inspector general — it’s far too long to wait.
Luckily, the IG Independence and Empowerment Act would also require the Integrity Committee to report allegations to Congress quickly and keep members apprised of the status of investigations. This would hopefully speed up the process of identifying ineffective inspectors general.
By removing Wertheimer and supporting this crucial legislation, Biden would be able to remove an ineffective watchdog while still protecting the inspector general community’s independence.
For the IG system to work, it is essential to balance independence with accountability of IGs. Both require a president to take these actions and explain them to the public and Congress.
Danielle Brian is the executive director of the Project On Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog that investigates and exposes waste, corruption and abuse of power.