Knowing Their Worth: President’s Budget Sought Big Cuts to Inspectors General

Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee (HSGAC) released a report last week about the budgets of federal inspectors general (IGs). Spearheaded by Senator Claire McCaskill (MO), the report evaluates the President’s budget for fiscal year 2019 by looking at how much money the budget allocated to 27 of the 73 federal IGs, and potential impact to their work as a result.

The report shows a concerning disregard for the importance and work of inspectors general, reflected in the disproportionate funding for their offices, compared with the agency they oversee. For example, the budget apportioned less than 0.1 percent of each agency’s budget to its inspector general on average; in dollar amounts, this means about $1 to the inspector general for every $1,329 for the agency.

Worse, several inspector general budgets were cut or remained unchanged from the previous year while their agency’s budget increased—a challenge that would pose serious strain on an inspector general’s capacity to conduct meaningful oversight over agency activities. For example, the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General’s budget would be cut by $12.6 million, or 7.2 percent, while the agency’s budget would increase by 8.8 percent. The Homeland Security Inspector General noted that such a differential between its budget and the agency budget “critically impairs the [IG]’s ability to carry out its statutory oversight responsibilities.”

The report also points out that the Administration violated the 2008 Inspector General Reform Act by failing to include in the budget the initial funding request by the inspectors general for more than half of the agencies reviewed. These requests, when included, allow appropriators in Congress to draw a clear comparison between how much money an inspector general is asking for and what the President believes they should receive.

Overall, the Committee report shows that the President’s budget for FY 2019 was not particularly kind to federal inspectors general, cutting the budget for some of the largest agencies’ inspectors general while disregarding the IGs’ actual budget requests. It’s important to remember, though, that the President’s fiscal budget doesn’t represent the final federal budget or real allocation of money—Congress passes the annual budget and appropriates its funds. Even with that in mind, presidents’ budgets are important because they establish the president’s stance on issues they didn’t necessarily campaign on; issues like IG budgets, for example.

The President has a lot of power to shape public opinion; the President’s budget represents the Administration’s priorities and, to some extent, shapes the priorities of the President’s political party and its supporters. By disfavoring inspectors general in the budget, the President sends the message that they are not worth funding, which could lead to misperception about the necessity and effectiveness of their work.

Genuine public understanding about federal inspectors general is crucial—these watchdogs not only audit major federal programs that spend trillions of taxpayer dollars, they are also an indispensable resource for whistleblowers who expose corruption and potentially catastrophic risks to public health and safety. Without public support, their funding may become less of a priority for Congress.

POGO’s recent report on IGs, The Watchdogs After Forty Years: Recommendations for Our Nation’s Federal Inspectors General, explains how important it is for inspectors general to have consistent budgets that are predictable and grow proportionately with the agency budget. A bigger agency budget means more employees, more offices, more major projects, and more requests to fund those projects. If Congress were to follow the President’s lead by decreasing the budget of an inspector general or even just keeping it stagnant, it would essentially be asking the inspector general to perform expanded oversight over new agency programs and employees with the same limited staff and resources while maintaining necessary independence from the agency.

Even though the President’s budget doesn’t reflect how much funding federal inspectors general will actually receive, it could be interpreted as a dismissal of the important role that they play in the federal government. Telling the public and Congress that they aren’t worth the effort is not only misleading, it’s irresponsible.