Column: Internal watchdogs keep government services accountable
QUESTION: What are Inspectors General?
ANSWER: Congressional oversight is a primary means for the legislative branch to strengthen our system of checks and balances. In addition to exercising power of the purse and conducting oversight hearings and investigations, lawmakers added more eyes and ears within the executive branch to help root out mismanagement and wrongdoing. Congress put laws on the books some 35 years ago to assign independent, non-partisan watchdogs to federal agencies and departments to help detect and prevent fraud, waste and abuse.
Since then, the Inspector General Act of 1978 has been updated to reflect the growing reach of the federal government. Today the federal government has 72 inspectors general (IGs) serving as the taxpaying public’s arbiter of good governance, specifically to promote effective, efficient operation of government services. Through rigorous internal audits and investigations of their respective agencies, the IGs can cultivate integrity, encourage proper stewardship and discourage misspending and violations of law.
QUESTION: How can IGs make a difference?
ANSWER: For starters, self-policing is not a strong suit of the federal bureaucracy. Instead, a systemic mindset has evolved into a culture that too often circles the wagons and shifts the blame when wrongdoing comes to light. Going-along-to-get-along for too long has been standard operating procedure among the hierarchy of the federal bureaucracy. Having internal watchdogs on the job can serve as a deterrent to wrongdoing and help keep government services and spending accountable to the taxpaying public. More importantly, their investigative scrutiny provides Congress with unvarnished facts that are helpful to make critical spending and policy decisions.
Consider a handful of recent disclosures that have given the federal government a black eye: disgraceful scheduling procedures at the Department of Veterans Affairs; illicit shenanigans by Secret Service agents; flagrant misspending and ill treatment by the IRS; and ineffective management and oversight of federal contractors doing business with the Department and Defense and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Through my congressional oversight authority, I also work to hold IGs accountable to ensure they uphold standards of integrity and independence. The Offices of Inspectors General are funded by taxpayers to root out fraud, waste and abuse, not to tow the line for the agency they are charged with auditing.
That's why I keep a short leash on these independent watchdogs to perform robust internal investigations. Dishing up ineffective reports and weak audits end up being costly hogwash to the taxpaying public. It’s important more than ever to make the government handle its responsibilities efficiently and effectively. Inspectors General can help to air the federal government’s dirty laundry so that wrongdoing and problems can be fixed. But IGs can’t do their jobs if federal agencies are putting them through the wringer. Or if the IGs themselves are whitewashing the facts instead of investigating them.
QUESTION: Why do you believe this is the most stonewalling administration ever?
ANSWER: I respectfully take the president at his word. Upon entering the White House, he promised an “unprecedented level of openness” that would make his the most transparent administration ever. He’s come up short by a country mile. In fact, in an unprecedented rebuke of leadership decisions within the executive branch, 47 Inspectors General expressed growing alarm about restricted access to information, materials and records needed to properly, fully and promptly conduct their oversight duties under the law. The independent watchdogs spelled out specific concerns about restrictive access to their colleagues assigned to the Peace Corps; Environmental Protection Agency (the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board); and, the Department of Justice. These professionals wanted to go on the record to express grave concerns about the ability to perform their own oversight work going forward as the potential for a stonewalling ripple effect may occur across-the-board in their respective agencies.
From my own experience as a champion for whistleblower protections and advocate for Inspectors General, I’m all too familiar with the stonewalling strategy of deny and delay. As a lawmaker, it’s frustrating. And with regards to the concerns shared by 47 Inspectors General, the subversive restrictions by federal agencies certainly run counter to congressional intent and may violate federal law. Their letter fuels my long-time effort to hold the federal government accountable to the American people. That includes working to implement anti-gag provisions which federal agencies and government contractors abuse to restrict disclosure of wrongdoing and mismanagement from reaching the proper authorities. Blocking the disclosure of this information weakens our system of checks and balances and increases dysfunction and mistrust in government.