On Wednesday the House is scheduled to take up legislation introduced by Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) that is aimed at strengthening the independence and professionalism of Inspectors General (IGs). POGO on September 26, 2007, sent a letter of support for Rep. Cooper's bill, the Improving Government Accountability Act (H.R. 928).
However, the administration has indicated it strongly objects to several provisions of Rep. Cooper's bill. For example, one section would make clear that IGs could only be removed for cause, which is defined to include such grounds as permanent incapacity, inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance or felony conviction. Current law states only that an IG may be removed from office by the President. The administration objects to the change as an "intrusion on the President's removal authority and his ability to hold IGs accountable for their performance."
"That objection might be more believable if the administration had removed from office NASA Inspector General Robert Cobb, after the IGs' own Integrity Committee found he had abused his office and failed to maintain the appropriate appearance of independence from his agency's management," said Danielle Brian, Executive Director of POGO.
The administration has also objected to the bill's requirement that IGs submit their budget requests to Congress and be represented by a separate line item in the President's annual budget request. "This may not seem so important for the larger IG offices in the larger Cabinet departments," said Ms. Brian. "However, POGO's ongoing review of the Inspector General system has revealed that some of the smaller IG offices have encountered very real difficulties in obtaining the funding and staff resources necessary to do their jobs, because their budgets are completely at the discretion of an agency head."
For over 25 years, the Project On Government Oversight has investigated and exposed corruption and misconduct to achieve a more accountable federal government. We are deeply committed to watchdogs such as IGs who can help government agencies function more effectively and efficiently. POGO supports efforts of Congress to address weaknesses in the IG system and believes it to be tremendously important to provide the means to increase the effectiveness and professionalism of these essential government officials. Ms. Brian has also sent a letter of support to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) who has introduced a similar bill.
The House vote on the legislation comes at a time when the issue of accountability – or Who's Watching the Watchdogs? – has taken on troubling new significance, as several IGs at major agencies have been accused of misconduct, and three have resigned under a cloud of scandal, in addition to the situation with the NASA IG. At the same time, several IGs have suffered retaliation for doing their jobs too well. The forms of retaliation have ranged from budget cuts to personal attacks and even threats to eliminate their offices entirely. Rep. Cooper's bill is aimed at providing both better accountability and more independence for the Inspectors General.
In recent years, independent and qualified IGs have played an important role in advancing good government practices. The intent of Congress in creating these offices within agencies was to have a watchdog both for agency heads and to provide Congress with a complete picture of agency operations. Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the 1978 Inspector General law.
Important provisions of Rep. Cooper's bill include:
- establishment of a seven-year term of office for each IG, subject to removal for cause, but permitting re-appointment;
- authorization for IGs to submit their budget requests directly to OMB and Congressional oversight committees; and the President must specify in his budget the amount of the IG's budget request, to add transparency to the process;
- establishment of a joint Council of all IGs by statute instead of executive order, to increase professionalism, effectiveness and training of IG personnel;
- permanent establishment of the IG Council's Integrity Committee to review and investigate allegations of misconduct regarding IGs.
The Project on Government Oversight has recently begun a major investigation into the Inspector General system to determine best practices as well as weaknesses. POGO hopes at the conclusion to offer recommendations on how best to achieve the optimal balance between independence and accountability for Inspectors General.