White House, Senate committee still at odds over IG bill

Facing a series of scandals involving inspectors general, the White House has said it still opposes legislation to strengthen the federal watchdogs and would treat a key provision of a Senate bill as nonbinding.

"The administration cannot support [the bill] in its current form," Office of Management and Budget Director Jim Nussle wrote in a Jan. 9 letter to Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., whose committee unanimously passed the measure in November. The bill aims to increase the independence of IGs through measures such as requiring notification of Congress 30 days before an IG is removed and mandating that all have their own legal counsel instead of using agency lawyers. Though no time frame is set, backers hope to move the bill to the Senate floor in the next few weeks, Senate aides said.

Nussle did not say President Bush would veto the measure, but he detailed concerns about 10 provisions in it. Nussle said the administration would implement a section requiring IGs to be appointed solely on the basis of relevant experience "in a manner consistent" with the president's authority over nominations. The administration will treat the section "as sound advice," Nussle wrote.

Among other concerns, he objected to a ban on IGs receiving bonuses controlled by agency heads and to a clause that strengthens and makes permanent a council that investigates IG malfeasance and coordinates their activity.

The bill -- and those provisions -- has gained urgency from a stream of controversies over the conduct of inspectors general. State Department Inspector General Howard Krongard stepped down Tuesday, after announcing his resignation amid charges he failed to aggressively oversee the department. The FBI is investigating charges of malfeasance lodged by former employees against Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq. And the CIA drew attacks in Congress when it conducted its own investigation of its inspector general.

Members in both parties have questioned if the council now overseeing IGs, called the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, can effectively investigate charges against them. Prompted by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and others, GAO is reviewing that question.

Democrats like Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who introduced the Senate measure, and House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., have also attributed recent IG scandals to the administration selecting unqualified candidates.

Both the House and Senate IG bills have already been changed in what sponsors said were attempts to address White House concerns. A Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs spokeswoman said the letter is part of an ongoing consultation process.

"We appreciate hearing from them, but we have been negotiating with them throughout the process and we have been aware of some of the concerns and have worked to address them already," she said. An OMB spokeswoman said, "We'll continue to work with the committee to enact legislation that ensures even greater effectiveness of the inspectors general."

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