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Holding the Government Accountable

After 5 Years, Is Obama Ready to Fill State Department Vacancy?

Secretary of State John Kerry says if it were up to him, the State Department would already have a permanent inspector general, a critical position that has been vacant for more than five years.

In fact, Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday that the delay is due to the White House's vetting process and that he's already provided President Obama with a potential nominee. According to Foreign Policy, Kerry said a nominee for the inspector general position, as well as nominees for other key State Department positions, should be coming soon:

"I've talked to the White House. They're totally on board. They're trying to get it moved. So I hope that within a very short span of time, you're going to see these slots filled."

It's certainly good news that Secretary Kerry recognizes the need for a permanent inspector general at the State Department. But nominating someone to fill the vacancy won't mean anything if that person isn't an aggressive, independent-minded watchdog.

President Obama went his entire first term without nominating someone to fill the vacant position. The last time the State Department has had a permanent in-house watchdog to investigate fraud, waste and abuse, Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak were entrenched as "dictators for life," Condoleezza Rice was Secretary of State and the junior senator from Illinois was still a long shot for the Democratic nomination.

In other words, it has been a long time since the State Department Office of Inspector General has had a permanent leader--1,920 days and counting.

Including the vacancy at the State Department, there are 8 agencies without a permanent inspector general. Both the Interior and Labor departments have had vacancies for more than 1,300 days. The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) tracks the vacancies on its "Where are All the Watchdogs?" page.

POGO has long called for President Obama to address the vacancies, including launching letter-writing campaigns to both President Obama and Secretary Kerry. (There were 12 inspector general vacancies in February 2012 when POGO's IG vacancy tracker debuted.)

Why are these positions so important? Well, inspectors general conduct audits and investigations that identify wasteful government practices, fraud by individuals and government contractors, and other sorts of government misconduct.

Congress and the public rely on their reports to hold agencies and individuals accountable for wrongdoing, identify a need for legislation, and evaluate the effectiveness of government programs and policies.

Having a permanent inspector general, as opposed to an acting or interim IG, is critical. Permanent IGs at Cabinet-level departments are appointed by the president, confirmed by the Senate and because they do not serve at the whim of department secretaries, they can act aggressively with less fear about losing their jobs.

IGs appointed by the President can only be removed by the President. And while the IGs who are appointed by agency heads can be removed by the agency heads, no IG, no matter who appoints them, can be removed without Congress' knowledge.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, says she is taking Kerry for his word and expects President Obama to nominate a permanent inspector general in short order.

"We need a permanent inspector general at the State Department, so I'm encouraged by Secretary Kerry's announcement this morning that a candidate is being sent over to the White House today," Shaheen said in statement. "As I've repeatedly said before, there are too many agencies operating without the permanent leadership in place to improve oversight and accountability and ultimately save billions in taxpayer dollars."