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Holding the Government Accountable

New Roadblock for Inspectors General Access to Information

The clock is ticking down to the end of the year, and an even shorter clock is ticking down to the end of the 114th Congress. With just over one week left, the Senate has little time to work the final kinks out of some of its most important legislation for the year. One of those bills is the bipartisan Inspector General Empowerment Act of 2015, and yesterday Senator John McCain (R-AZ) raised concerns about it.

Under the original Inspector General Act of 1978, IGs were given access to all agency records. However, beginning in 2010, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and other agencies began vetting and redacting sensitive documents before giving them to Inspectors General (IG), increasing the amount of time it took for IGs to receive those documents, limiting the IGs’ ability to fully investigate issues, and generally slowing down the oversight process.

In 2015, the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), a DOJ office that provides legal advice to the executive branch, made things more difficult for IGs by handing down an opinion that said the DOJ IG does not have unfettered access to all of the agency’s documents. In essence, the opinion meant that “all” doesn’t mean “all.” The Project On Government Oversight’s Danielle Brian testified against this impediment to oversight at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in August 2015.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and eleven bipartisan cosponsors responded to the threat to oversight posed by the OLC memo with the IG Empowerment Act, to make sure that IG’s have access to the records they need to do their jobs. Senator McCain is now objecting to the passage of the bill in the final days of this Congress, asserting that it should include an exemption for the Department of Defense IG and that it may interfere with Congressional oversight of IGs. However, Senator Grassley points out that such an exemption is unnecessary as the Secretary of Defense already has the ability to intervene in IG investigations in a number of instances. Senator Grassley also pointed out that Senator McCain withdrew his same objections last year.

The IG Empowerment Act of 2015 is necessary to restore the authority Congress intended IGs to have when it originally passed the Inspector General Act—the authority to access allrelevant agency information needed to conduct investigations into fraud, waste, and abuse. We urge Senators Grassley and McCain to work through these differences with enough time to allow the House to vote on the bill before everyone heads home and the curtain closes on this Congress.