Holding the Government Accountable

IG Independence Protected by Passage of Empowerment Act

Photo Credit: Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr

The Inspector General Empowerment Act of 2016 codifies the rights of Inspectors General (IGs) to access all agency records they need to do their job, and just made it out at the end of the last Congress. POGO applauds Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA), the eleven bipartisan cosponsors, the rest of Congress, and President Obama for enacting this law. While many have interpreted the original Inspector General Act of 1978 as granting IGs unfettered access to all agency documents, that authority recently came under attack, and this bill unequivocally makes that right of access clear

In 2010, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and other agencies began vetting and redacting sensitive documents before giving them to IGs, increasing the amount of time it took for IGs to receive those documents, limiting the IGs’ ability to fully investigate issues, and generally impeding the oversight process. This restriction was bolstered in 2015 when the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) released an opinion stating that the DOJ IG did not have complete access to all of the agency’s documents. In essence, the opinion meant that the word “all” in the 1978 IG Act did not mean all.

The IG Empowerment Act was Congress’s response to the threat to oversight posed by the OLC memo and the overall reduction of IG independence that started in 2010. While originally introduced in 2015 by Senator Grassley, the law went through multiple revisions to quell objections and incorporate feedback from both sides of the aisle. Thankfully, a version was created that Members could agree upon and pass into law, solidifying the IGs’ right to access all agency records.

A provision was also added that exempts IGs from a requirement that agencies and IGs enter into computer matching agreements when requesting, comparing, or sharing electronic data. Some agencies were using these agreements as another way to restrict IG access to their records, with the computer matching agreements generally taking over a year to complete—and that was when everything went right. An exemption from this requirement allows IGs to maneuver past another unnecessary barrier endangering their independence and preventing them from effectively rooting out waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement in their agencies.

While there is still a lot more to do, the IG Empowerment Act’s changes are a great step towards having the most effective IG system possible.