Sen. Grassley on the Important Role of Inspectors General

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In recent months, a lot of attention has focused on the nation’s Inspectors General.

It seems like a good idea to take a few minutes to remember what Inspectors General are, why Congress created them in the first place, and how we got here.

Congress first established offices of Inspectors General in 1978 to “create independent and objective units” in the federal government to do three things:

  1. conduct audits and investigations;
  2. promote efficiency and deter fraud and abuse; and
  3. keep agency heads and Congress “fully informed” about the problems IGs find.

In short, Congress designed Inspectors General to shine a bright light on waste, fraud, and abuse throughout the ever-expanding federal bureaucracy, with the hope that the Executive and Legislative Branches could work together and do something about it. 

Put another way, IGs are the original swamp drainers.

And – an equally important point for those who weren’t around at the time – the support for creating these offices was breathtakingly bipartisan.

The vote in the House of Representatives, where I was then serving Iowa’s 3rd district, was 388-6.

Now, more than 40 years later, we have 75 offices of inspectors general working throughout the federal government to stop fraud and abuse. Their actions have also saved taxpayers billions of dollars.

In 2020 so far, IGs have identified more than $20 billion in potential savings through their audits, reports, and recommendations.

$20 billion, and the year’s not even half over.

On you can find the latest figures on these watchdogs’ contributions as well as investigative and audit reports on every kind of topic you can think of. IGs have found everything from blatant government employee misconduct to procurement fraud and much more.

It’s all there in black and white. In the public domain for all to see. These IGs are helping Congress watch over the people’s business and ensure the fidelity of agency actions.

We cannot perform our constitutional mandate of oversight without them. The IGs’ work makes government more transparent, and more accountable, and that strengthens the public’s trust in our republic.

That’s a good thing for Congress and the Presidency.

In this way, these watchdogs serve an indispensable function in our system of checks and balances.

So, what makes a good Inspector General? 

If I’ve learned anything about oversight in my time in Congress, it’s that this type of work is not for the faint-hearted, thin-skinned or thick-headed.

You need a strong code of professionalism to withstand pressures to go-along-to-get-along.

You need a real backbone to wring wrongdoing from the bowels of the bureaucracy.

You need a quick wit to look on smiling faces and discern truths from half-truths and bald faced lies.

And, the law says that IGs are supposed to be objective and independent.

They have to be fierce watchdogs, not lapdogs.

They can’t bow to personal agendas or political machinations, and they shouldn’t be subject to inappropriate political pressures from any quarter. 

When IGs are working hard, staying independent, and shining a light on waste, fraud, and abuse, they should stay.

But, when they don’t put in the work, when they pull punches, when they become political hacks, or when they compromise their vital independence, they must go.

For many years, I’ve investigated and held IGs accountable from both Democrat and Republican administrations for these very failures.

In 2003, I pushed the Health and Human Services IG to resign over whistleblower complaints about poor staff management.

I also investigated allegations of poor work product, coercive management decisions, and questionable hiring practices by the watchdog at the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

Just last year I began pushing hard to get to the bottom of whistleblower complaints about another apparently ineffective Commerce IG, although the media doesn’t seem to care about that, despite bipartisan concern and briefings from my staff.

Alternatively, when IGs come under fire for doing good work, I’ve had their backs.

In 2009, I shined a light on the sudden departure of Amtrak’s IG, who signed a gag order in exchange for a significant payout.

When the Obama administration blocked a broad swath of the IG community from accessing records needed for oversight, I worked across the aisle with many of my Senate colleagues to introduce and finally pass the Inspector General Empowerment Act in 2016.

In short, I’ve gone to the mat my whole career to ensure IGs do, and are able to, accomplish their work with support, independence and integrity.

And because this work is so critical to Congress’ oversight role and to the public trust, I’ve worked hard to ensure that any effort to remove an IG is for a darn good reason. 

That’s what Congress required in the IG Reform Act of 2008, a law that then-Senator Obama not only voted for, but cosponsored.

That law recognizes two things.

First, it is the President’s constitutional prerogative to manage executive branch personnel.

The President can fire an IG.

Second, it is Congress’ intent that, to support IG independence and maintain public trust, IGs should not be removed for blatantly political reasons.

This requires that Presidents tell Congress and the people their reasons for removal.

The IG Reform Act codifies those principles by requiring the President to submit to Congress a notice of intent to remove an IG 30 days in advance, and to explain why.  

Now, the Executive Branch, under two successive administrations of both political parties, has sought to ignore this law and keep Congress in the dark.

They both provided Congress with paltry excuses of “lost confidence.”

In July of 2009, less than a year after Congress passed the IG reform act, then President Obama removed the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) Inspector General, Gerald Walpin from his post and placed him on administrative leave.

Obama’s White House informed Congress merely that he had lost confidence in Mr. Walpin.

My colleagues and I made it very clear that a vague reference to a “loss of confidence” was insufficient and did not satisfy the requirements of the very law President Obama had just supported as a senator.

This began a bout of negotiations that resulted in the hold of presidential nominees and eventually a bicameral congressional investigation into the matter.[1]

In that case, I pushed for compliance with the statute, held up a nominees to obtain information, and disagreed with the stated reasons for Mr. Walpin’s removal. In the end, Mr. Walpin was never reinstated.[2]

In Mr. Walpin’s case a federal court also later found, despite a clear congressional record to the contrary, that the law doesn’t require greater detail beyond its “minimal statutory mandate” to justify a removal.

Fast forward to the last several months, when the current president followed this court’s incorrect ruling and the Obama precedent, by removing two Senate-confirmed IGs, placing them on administrative leave, and telling Congress only, as Obama once did before, that he had lost confidence in them.

In response, I did exactly what I had done before.

I, and several colleagues, wrote asking for a better explanation.

When we finally got a response from the White House Counsel we were left without substantive reasons for the IG removals.

So, like before, I notified the Majority Leader of my intent to object to two administrative nominees until the White House coughed up some form of rationale for the IGs’ removal.

I finally got those reasons this week.

I don’t agree with all of them, and I’m working to better understand others, but because the President has finally fulfilled the law both Congress and the public can look and see for themselves what happened.

This of course was the intent of the law all along.

We took the long road to get here and we could have avoided all of this hullaballoo if both presidents had just followed the statutory notice requirement in the first place, but we’re here.

These episodes have convinced me that the Executive Branch, regardless of what party is in charge, just doesn’t get it.

From one administration to the next, Democrat or Republican, it makes no difference to me.

This isn’t about politics.

It’s about the separation of powers, checks and balances, and the public trust.

It’s clear that Congress can’t rely on any White House to get it right. So, we need to change the law.  

We need to be clearer and we need to better safeguard the independence of these IGs.

That’s why I’ve been developing bipartisan reforms to sharpen the independent authority and recruitment of those hired and confirmed to serve as inspectors general.

We’re not going to enact a clearly unconstitutional law that infringes on the President’s authority to manage personnel and that would surely result in a lengthy court battle.

But we are going to clarify once and for all that the law’s notice requirement means that Presidents have to give clear, substantive reasons for removing an IG, and that they can’t put an IG on administrative leave without a good reason.

To fully safeguard statutorily required IG independence, we’re also going to make sure that the President cannot place political appointees with clear conflicts of interest into acting IG roles.

We can’t have individuals with political day jobs simultaneously in charge of confidential, independent IG matters, including sensitive audits, investigative work, and whistleblower information.

Today, I’ve introduced that legislation with my colleagues Senators Peters, Collins, Feinstein, Lankford, Carper, Romney, Tester, Portman and Hassan.

I want to thank Ranking Member Peters for working with me on this. His input has been insightful in crafting this bipartisan legislation and his staff has been diligent in furthering these efforts.

Whether you’ve been following the important work of inspectors general for many years, or you’ve just tuned in for the last few, we welcome your support.

And I hope that support continues well past the current administration.

If we don’t update the law, we can only expect future administrations to repeat the actions of current and prior administrations.

Let’s get this done.

[1] Staff of S. Comm. on Fin. and H. Comm. on Oversight and Government Reform, 111th Cong., The Firing of the Inspector General for the Corporation for National and Community Service 47 (Comm. Print 2009).

[2] Walpin v. Corp. for Nat’l & Cmty. Servs., 630 F.3d 184, 187 (D.C. Cir. 2011).