Senators hope to put inspector general bill on fast track

Citing controversies over agency heads who allegedly interfered with the independence of inspectors general, a bipartisan group of senators Thursday introduced legislation aimed at strengthening IGs.

Sponsored by Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., ranking member Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., the measure includes compromise provisions intended to respond to White House objections to a bill introduced previously by McCaskill.

With a full committee markup scheduled for Wednesday, the bill's backers hope to quickly move it to the Senate floor.

The House last month passed a similar bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., on a lopsided vote that suggests it may be veto-proof.

Cooper has pressed for years for legislation to strengthen IGs, but the issue got a boost this year from an oversight-friendly Congress and a series of scandals in which inspectors general, required under a 1978 law to act as independent watchdogs, appeared to work too closely with agency leaders or succumb to political pressure from the Bush administration. IGs at large agencies are appointed by the president but report to Congress.

In a statement, the Senate bill's sponsors noted CIA Inspector General John Helgerson is the subject of an internal investigation by top CIA officials. Reports that the probe focuses on Helgerson's fairness in investigations of terrorist detention and interrogation programs that angered agency insiders have drawn charges that CIA is trying to silence an internal critic.

The statement also cited efforts last year by Lurita Doan, head of the General Services Administration, to reduce the budget and responsibilities of her agency's IG while arguing that the office was too aggressive in investigating contracting malfeasance.

The inspectors general of NASA and the State Department have also in recent months faced charges that they allegedly cooperated with agency leaders to block embarrassing investigations.

Both the House-passed and the Senate IG bills would codify an existing Council of Inspectors General with authority to carry out all investigations of IGs. The bills would allow the council to make recommendations for filling vacant IG posts with qualified candidates, prohibit IGs from accepting bonuses controlled by agency heads and reduce the ability of agencies to lower IG pay, among other steps.

But in steps aimed at responding to an administration veto threat, both the Lieberman-backed bill and the version passed by the House expanded the reasons for which IGs can be fired. In a Statement of Administration Policy, OMB said the House bill, before it was amended, made it too hard to dismiss IGs, even for good reason.

Both bills also dropped a provision allowing IGs to submit their budgets directly to Congress, a step OMB said infringed on executive control of budget requests. OMB has not said if it would recommend a veto of the revised bills.

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