Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Now is the Appropriate Time for Congress to Spend Some Money to Make Some Change

(Photos: Getty Images; Illustration: Leslie Garvey / POGO)

Earlier this year, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) submitted over 30 requests to congressional appropriations subcommittees as they considered the various spending bills that will keep our government running in fiscal year 2023.

POGO’s requests, like our work, covered a wide range of recommendations to make the federal government more efficient, effective, and responsible to taxpayers. Lawmakers in the House included a total of nine requests in their subcommittees’ bills or accompanying reports. Soon, our eyes will turn to the Senate, where the fate of these provisions will be decided. But first, we wanted to explain what it is that we have been working on.

Standardizing Funding for the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE)

Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill (page 40)

Independent watchdogs in our executive branch must be subject to robust and consistent oversight. To better enable that kind of coordination and accountability, POGO has urged Congress to establish a direct appropriation for the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE).

CIGIE is the entity responsible for conducting oversight of the federal inspectors general system, but it does not receive consistent annual funding from Congress. Instead, its budget relies on the funding of its 73 component inspector general member offices, which often face their own budgetary challenges. Therefore, CIGIE leadership is often unsure of its annual topline until well into the fiscal year, and is therefore less able to engage in long-term, strategic planning. As a result, CIGIE’s ability to oversee the inspectors general system is hampered.

If implemented, this reform would serve as a strong first step towards ensuring that oversight of federal watchdogs receives the consistent and direct funding that such a critical mission deserves. It would also strengthen the credibility of the inspector general system itself allowing individual IGs to do their jobs more efficiently and effectively.

Increasing Transparency of Inspectors General Reports

Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill (page 39)

Two key pillars of accountability are commitments to transparency and to equal application of the law, even at the highest levels. It may, therefore, come as a surprise that many inspectors general are still not required to list all their reports on any public website. The Inspector General Empowerment Act of 2016 requires most inspectors general to publish any audit, inspection, or evaluation they submit to their affiliated federal agencies. While that has resulted in a great deal of transparency into their critical work, there is a carve out in the law that states IG reports should not be posted if their publication would raise concerns regarding classification, national security, or privacy. Unfortunately, this carveout means that even the existence of some IG reports is hidden from the public.

POGO has urged Congress to direct CIGIE to publish to their website a public-facing list of non-public IG reports, broken out by each office of inspector general. This way, the public will at least be aware of the reports’ existence, and individuals can file a Freedom of Information Act request for any of those reports — triggering a review process designed to protect sensitive information while appropriately balancing transparency.

If implemented, this new reporting requirement would enhance transparency surrounding existing inspectors general reports, and it would allow the public to more accurately track inspectors general findings and recommendations. This additional layer of transparency would contribute to a more effective and accountable federal government that is responsible to the taxpayer.

Fully and Expeditiously Implementing the Corporate Transparency Act

Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Bill (page 21)

Enacted by Congress in 2021, the Corporate Transparency Act (CTA) is a landmark financial transparency and anti-money laundering bill. The law requires corporations, LLCs, and other entities to disclose the identities of their “beneficial owners,” the people behind layers of anonymous shell companies. Understanding who these so-called beneficial owners are and where they come from will allow the Treasury Department to crack down on illicit financial exchanges and money laundering.

POGO has urged Congress to direct the Treasury Department to fully and expeditiously implement the CTA. While the department has taken the first formal step to operationalize this, it is still behind in the series of rules that it stated it intends to publish with respect to the CTA.

If implemented, the Corporate Transparency Act would strengthen our financial institutions to better protect against those — including Russian oligarchs — seeking to use the U.S. financial system to evade oversight.

Strengthening the Authority of the Department of Homeland Security’s Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties

Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Bill (pages 9-10)

Within the Department of Homeland Security, the Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) is tasked with the important mission of ensuring that the department preserves individual liberty, fairness, and equality in the execution of its other duties.

POGO has urged Congress to grant CRCL stronger authority to carry out its investigations independent from DHS or its components. This independence is critical in ensuring that investigations are not tainted by partisan or political interests, and that misconduct in DHS is met with tangible disciplinary action or other repercussions.

If implemented, this reform would require CRCL to streamline its communication processes with those who submit complaints and streamline its procedures for submitting its findings to Congress. These changes would ultimately make CRCL more effective in holding those who violate civil rights within DHS programs accountable for their actions.

Requiring Department of Homeland Security Use-of-Force Reporting

Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Bill (page 12)

Department of Homeland Security components have repeatedly engaged in excessive use of force, as reports of U.S. Border Patrol treatment of migrants and members of the U.S.-Mexico border community show. Unfortunately, these instances are rarely fully investigated or disclosed to the public. As such, it is difficult to substantiate allegations of wrongdoing and, ultimately, hold perpetrators of misconduct accountable.

POGO has urged Congress to strongly encourage DHS to prioritize use-of-force policies and practices that direct officers and agents to place paramount value on the preservation of human life, as well as deploy de-escalation and non-lethal responses. The department should train agents to use lethal force as a last resort. POGO has also requested the department institute stronger use-of-force reporting standards, and that it brief Congress on its plan to establish an independent commission that will serve as a permanent, civilian oversight body for DHS law enforcement components.

If implemented, this reprioritization would empower entities within DHS working to strengthen use-of-force reporting mechanisms. This is the first step towards ensuring more accountability at the department for misconduct and excessive use of force.

Addressing Gaps in Legislative Inspector General Coverage and Coordination

Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill (page 6)

Many legislative branch agencies do not have their own inspectors general. This gap in oversight is exacerbated by the lack of a centralized entity to support the individual watchdogs that are in place. Such an office, like the executive branch’s Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, is needed to facilitate information sharing, coordinate between offices, and establish best practices for legislative branch IGs. In its absence, many legislative branch offices are clearly ill-equipped to examine waste, fraud, and abuse.

POGO has requested that Congress require the GAO to issue a report examining the gaps in independent oversight within the legislative branch inspector general system. This GAO report should specifically identify offices and organizations that are not covered by existing inspectors general and areas of overlapping jurisdiction, as well as make recommendations for best practices that can enhance oversight within the legislative branch.

If implemented, this GAO report would provide Congress and the public better insight into how best to fill these gaps, as well as how best to reform the inspectors general system overall. As we have seen recently, between the COVID-19 pandemic and the January 6th attack on the U.S Capitol, it is of the utmost importance to increase coordination and communication between oversight entities when it comes to information, technology, and cybersecurity gaps in inspector general coverage.

Increasing Capitol Police Office of Inspector General Transparency

Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill (page 25)

The U.S. Capitol Police Office of the Inspector General (USCP IG), tasked with the critical duty to provide independent, professional, nonpartisan oversight over U.S. Capitol Police operations, does not make its reports available to the public. Though this policy is pursuant to the direction of the Capitol Police Board, it undermines public accountability and congressional oversight.

POGO has urged Congress to require the USCP IG to start publishing all final reports. POGO’s recommendation specifically stated that the USCP IG should err on the side of disclosure and only redact the contents of its reports to the extent that is necessary to protect national security and privacy interests. POGO has also requested that Congress direct the USCP IG to retroactively publish older reports.

If implemented, this reform would greatly increase transparency surrounding the USCP IG’s programs, activities, and recommendations, and it would allow other oversight entities to take more informed preventative actions in response to threats. Last year’s attack on the U.S. Capitol and the subsequent efforts to understand what must be done to prevent a similar attack from happening in the future demonstrate why it is so vital that USCP IG activities and assessments are made public.

Making Congressional Documents More Accessible

Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill (page 21)

The work of the U.S. House of Representatives should be accessible to all Americans. However, currently, not all digital properties associated with the House are accessible to people with disabilities. The failure of congressional websites to meet accessibility standards can prevent some constituents from obtaining important information about legislation, district services, or internship opportunities. To help address this disparity, POGO has urged Congress to take the first step to improve access to congressional websites by commissioning a report to understand what would be necessary to remove any accessibility barriers.

If Congress implements our request and continues to prioritize the steps necessary to make its work accessible, it will be taking a meaningful step forward toward making the democratic process more equitable.

Requiring a GAO Report on Agencies’ Compliance With the Good Accounting Obligation in Government Act

Legislative Branch Appropriations Bill (page 42)

The Good Accounting Obligation in Government Act (GAO-IG Act) requires that agencies publish a list of all outstanding recommendations from their inspectors general and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that are more than one year old and still open or unimplemented. Though the law went into effect in 2019, many agencies have yet to comply with its requirements. As such, a number of federal agencies are currently failing to report on the status of open recommendations, provide an implementation timeline, or issue a justification for other actions taken. This failure can lead to duplication of work, confusion at the staff level, and an overall lack of the data necessary to accurately capture agencies’ progress. To address this, POGO has urged Congress to require the GAO to analyze and report on federal agencies’ compliance with the GAO-IG Act.

If implemented, this GAO report would provide a comprehensive assessment of where, why, and how agencies are failing to implement or respond to oversight recommendations. It could help shed light on how to address these shortcomings and promote a healthy and responsive federal oversight system.

We recommend Congress take up these requests.

The appropriations process is critical in ensuring that federal programs are thoroughly considered and prudently implemented. These requests, many of which have already passed the House, outline necessary steps to supporting effective government. POGO hopes that similar reforms to the ones laid out here are taken up by the Senate, and that these specific recommendations are included in the final bills and reports signed into law.