Senate aides and oversight officials Friday applauded the appointment of an independent inspector general to oversee U.S. reconstruction spending in Afghanistan, but noted that with no funds appropriated, the IG's office is a long way from functioning.
President Bush Thursday appointed retired Marine Corps Major Gen. Arnold Fields as the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, overseeing billions of dollars in annual U.S. spending on reconstruction projects there.
The Defense Department inspector general's office and other oversight agencies will continue overseeing military spending.
The fiscal 2008 defense authorization bill, enacted in January, required creation of the office, modeled on the independent special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction. The bill authorized $20 million in funding for the Afghanistan IG. Even with the appointment of Fields, the office exists only on paper, congressional aides noted, until Congress resolves issues with supplemental war funding requests.
The Senate supplemental, which has yet to be taken up by the full chamber, contains $5 million in fiscal 2008 and another $5 million in fiscal 2009 for the Afghanistan IG, and the most recent House version of the supplemental contained $5 million. But with the bills stalled amid larger political fights over the war in Iraq, it remains to be seen when the office will get a budget or staff that would allow it to start work.
"Just like all the other things that are stuck in limbo with the supplemental, it has to be worked out in conference," said a Senate aide. Senate Democrats have accused the White House of foot-dragging in creating the office, which the Pentagon had opposed. Though the defense authorization required an appointment within 30 days of enactment, the White House took 120 days to consider several candidates before selecting Fields, drawing criticism from Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. The Senate aide said the delay caused problems. Because "the president hadn't appointed anybody, we couldn't get a budget; we couldn't get a staff," the aide said. "What we tried to do, because the president missed the deadline, was create these pressure points where the office was more and more real," he said, referring to the inclusion of incremental allocations in the supplemental spending bills.
The Afghanistan IG is one of several fronts where Congress has moved to increase oversight of war-related spending, but the money remains tied up in the legislative process. The Defense Department inspector general recently released a memo showing its ability to oversee agency activities has declined in recent years as its budget failed to keep pace with overall Pentagon spending.
But pending House and Senate fiscal 2009 defense authorization bills would raise the office's budget from about $248 million to $273 million.
The House Armed Services Committee report said the "increase would support increased audit, inspection policy oversight and investigative efforts." Nick Schwellenbach, an investigator for the Project On Government Oversight watchdog group, applauded the appointment of the Afghanistan IG, the increased funding for the Pentagon IG and Congress' move to create an independent commission, akin to the famed World War II-era Truman Committee, to oversee misuse of war funds. But Schwellenbach said the action is "about five years too late."