Spending bill amended with provision to strengthen IGs

An amendment requiring the Veterans Affairs Department to make it easy to use the Web to report malfeasance to the agency's inspector general is the latest effort by Democrats in Congress to strengthen inspectors general and oversight of federal agencies.

The provision would require the VA to create a mechanism on its Web site to anonymously report waste, fraud or abuse to the inspector general and to directly link the IG site on its home page. All inspectors general at large departments have Web sites, but few agencies link to the offices on their main page.

Offered by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., the provision was incorporated Wednesday into the Senate's fiscal 2008 Military Construction-VA appropriations bill. Aides said McCaskill, a former state auditor, will offer similar amendments to 10 other pending appropriations bills. She attached the same measure to the Homeland Security spending bill in July.

McCaskill included the same requirements in a broader bill aimed at strengthening inspectors general that is pending in the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Staffers said they hope the bill will be marked up this fall. The measure and a similar bill the House is expected to pass in coming weeks are advancing on the strength of Democrats' interest in vigorous agency oversight, backers said.

"Oversight has been a hallmark of this Congress," said John Spragens, spokesman for Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., who sponsored the House bill. Similar bills pushed in prior years by Cooper did not emerge from committee when Republicans were in charge.

Lawmakers have called the IG bills a fix for a series of scandals involving IGs, such as calls for NASA Inspector General Robert Cobb to resign over claims he worked too closely with agency officials.

Both the Cooper and McCaskill bills would give inspectors general fixed seven-year terms and require they be fired only for cause. The bills would allow IGs to send their budgets directly to Congress, a step intended to prevent agency heads for using budgets to influence oversight.

McCaskill's bill would also require that inspectors general have relevant backgrounds, prevent IGs from receiving cash bonuses, and require that all inspector general offices have their own legal counsel. Critics argue IGs that must rely on agency lawyers for advice, including the Pentagon's inspector general, sacrifice independence.

Clay Johnson, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget and chairman of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, has said many of the provisions in the IG bills are unnecessary. But it is unclear if the White House would veto an inspector general bill passed by Congress.

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