With a potential government shutdown looming, Congress is scrambling to piece together a massive appropriations package, known as an omnibus. The omnibus is comprised of 12 individual appropriations bills that together fund operations across the entire federal government. This means that, if passed, the omnibus has huge potential to finally enact some longstanding transparency and good government reforms.
Appropriators in both the House and the Senate have only just agreed on a topline spending number, and are now ironing out specific budget requests. If lawmakers are unable to reach a deal in the next few weeks, the government will either shut down (again) or — more likely — Congress will be forced to pass yet another continuing resolution to keep the government open, and the Biden administration will have missed an opportunity to put its stamp on federal agency budgets.
As Congress considers this spending package, here are five provisions that should be included because they would contribute to a more effective federal government that is accountable to the American people.
Inspector General Reforms
Appropriators should use the omnibus as an opportunity to push through bipartisan reforms to the inspectors general system. Inspectors general are nonpartisan, independent watchdogs responsible for detecting and preventing instances of fraud, waste, and abuse in federal agencies. As POGO has testified, inspectors general play a critical role in achieving a more effective and accountable federal government. In fact, in 2020 alone, inspectors general identified approximately $53 billion in potential savings, which represents a $17 return on every $1 of taxpayer money that Congress invested in those offices. Policymakers from both sides of the aisle are deeply invested in ensuring that inspectors general are well equipped to faithfully execute the duties of their office.
“In fact, in 2020 alone, inspectors general identified approximately $53 billion in potential savings, which represents a $17 return on every $1 of taxpayer money that Congress invested in those offices.”
A slate of inspector general reforms that appropriators could advance via omnibus already passed on a bipartisan, unanimous basis through the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in late 2021. These reforms, based on language that passed the House in a bipartisan vote last year, would equip federal inspectors general with the independence and authority necessary to do their jobs effectively. Specifically, the reforms would enhance the current presidential notification requirement for removing an inspector general, grant inspectors general temporary testimonial subpoena authority, and limit who can serve as an acting inspector general in the event of a vacancy.
Security Clearances for Congressional Staff
Appropriators should also use the omnibus as a vehicle to ensure that more congressional staffers are eligible for security clearances. Unlike in the Senate, not all members in the House who currently sit on committees dealing primarily with classified information are afforded a staff member in their personal office who possesses a Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information (TS/SCI) security clearance. This means that oftentimes, these staffers are unable to access the critical materials they need to assist their members of Congress in conducting rigorous oversight of the intelligence community.
As POGO has testified to Congress in the past, appropriators should include language in this bill requesting that each House member sitting on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, and the House Armed Services Committee have one staffer who is eligible to receive a TS/SCI security clearance. Furthermore, POGO urges appropriators to request a public report assessing the costs of providing eligibility for a TS/SCI-cleared staffer to every House member who makes such a request.
Intelligence Authorization Act Whistleblower Protections
POGO has also testified and advocated for expanding protections for intelligence community whistleblowers. Establishing clear, easily accessible pathways for whistleblowers to come forward, with effective protections against retaliation, prevents leaks that could potentially harm U.S. national security.
Appropriators should include whistleblower protections in the omnibus that have already unanimously passed the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on a bipartisan basis via the Intelligence Authorization Act. These protections include establishing a position within each intelligence community inspector general office designated to provide confidential, security-related guidance to potential whistleblowers, which would allow individuals to make more informed disclosures. Additionally, appropriators should include reporting language that clarifies the requirements for directly submitting a whistleblower complaint to Congress, reasserts statutory authority of intelligence community inspectors general to determine if a whistleblower complaint constitutes a matter of urgent concern, and prohibits the knowing and willful disclosure of a whistleblower’s identity without consent. Such language should also establish a fairer burden of proof for intelligence community whistleblowers fighting retaliatory security clearance and access determinations. Taken together, these provisions would build on existing statutory and regulatory frameworks to further protect whistleblowers from reprisal.
A Direct Congressional Appropriation for CIGIE
Another important issue that appropriators should address in an omnibus is establishing a direct annual congressional appropriation to the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE). CIGIE is the entity responsible for overseeing the federal inspectors general system, and it plays a key role in ensuring that inspectors general are held to the highest ethical standard.
“Standardizing CIGIE funding would also make the inspector general community more accountable, which is a longstanding issue that POGO has investigated.”
Unfortunately, CIGIE does not currently receive consistent funding; rather, it is funded through the piecemeal, voluntary contributions of its 73 inspectors general member offices. As a result, CIGIE cannot be confident in the size of its budget until all of its member offices have been fully funded for the year. Moreover, its budget is highly dependent on the budgets of some of the larger offices of inspectors general, which may be subject to funding cuts at any time. As Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz has said in testimony before Congress, this unpredictable funding mechanism has made it very challenging for CIGIE to engage in long-term strategic planning, which is harmful to the overall health of the inspector general system. Standardizing CIGIE funding would also make the inspector general community more accountable, which is a longstanding issue that POGO has investigated.
Capitol Police Inspector General Reporting Transparency
Appropriators should also turn their attention to commonsense reporting language that requires transparency mechanisms for the U.S. Capitol Police Office of Inspector General. In the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021, it is clear that the Capitol Police inspector general’s current policy to not publicly release its reports significantly hampers oversight efforts and requires immediate updating. According to the Capitol Police inspector general, this policy stems from a Capitol Police Board directive prohibiting the release of the reports. As POGO has testifiedseveral times in the past, Congress is well positioned to rescind this directive and compel the Capitol Police inspector general to publish its reports not only on its own website, but also on oversight.gov, a public database that houses all reports across the inspector general system. These reports should be posted regularly and — to the extent possible, given national security concerns — be unredacted. Ensuring that these reports are publicly accessible would be a major step towards proper congressional oversight and accountability of the Capitol Police.
An omnibus spending package has the potential to impact accountability, transparency, and anti-corruption priorities across the entire federal government. As appropriators come to the negotiating table to reach a deal, they should take this opportunity to include language that would reform the inspectors general system, ensure that more congressional staffers are eligible for security clearances, strengthen whistleblower protections, establish a direct congressional appropriation for CIGIE, and inject greater transparency into Capitol Police inspector general reporting requirements. Such provisions would resolve longstanding good government issues and would help bring about a more effective and ethical system.