Nearly every recent scandal and lapse involving inspectors general was mentioned at a Wednesday Senate panel hearing as senators from both parties teamed with transparency advocates to push the White House to accelerate nominations to empty watchdog slots.
The White House, however, sent no one to punch back, despite efforts by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to obtain testimony on delayed nominations from Valerie Green, director of the Office of Presidential Personnel, and her predecessor Jonathan McBride.
“When IG positions remain unfilled, their offices are run by acting IGs who, no matter how qualified or well-intentioned, are not granted the same protections afforded to Senate-confirmed IGs,” said Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis. “They are not truly independent, as they can be removed by the agency at any time; they are only temporary and do not drive office policy; and they are at greater risk of compromising their work to appease the agency or the president.”
Numbers from the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight showed that the Obama administration’s average time for filling IG vacancies is twice that of some past administrations. Under Reagan, the average time was 224 days; under George H.W. Bush, it was 337 days; for Clinton it was 453 days; and under George W. Bush, it was 280 days. Obama’s average stands at 613 days, “which is a problem,” Johnson said.
The longest vacancies have been at the Interior Department, where the position has sat empty nearly six years, and the State Department, which, as several pointed out, went for five years with an acting IG. That represented the entire duration of Hillary Clinton’s tenure. One witness suggested that State’s acting IG might have turned a blind eye to Clinton’s use of a private email server.
Currently, said Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department IG who chairs the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, IG slots are vacant at seven major agencies: Interior, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Veterans Affairs Department, the General Services Administration, the Export-Import Bank and the CIA. All but the CIA’s have been empty a year or more, he said, and the Obama administration has submitted nominations for only three.
“This administration needs to be doing a better job,” said Ranking Member Tom Carper, D-Del., noting efforts in past congresses to pressure Obama. “But we’re not entirely pure as a committee, since many nominations have been held up here for months or more.”
Both the lawmakers and witnesses named inspectors general -- acting and permanent -- who got in trouble, among them:
- Acting Veterans Affairs IG Richard Griffin, for his controversial handling of reports on whistleblower charges of scheduling delays at VA hospitals;
- Acting Homeland Security Department IG Charles Edwards, since resigned, for abusive spending on promotional items; and,
- Commerce Department IG Todd Zinser, who previously was acting and whose resignation has been called for by lawmakers and POGO for alleged retaliation against whistleblowers.
“The disadvantage of being acting IG is you have less credibility because there’s no vetting,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of POGO. “There’s an incentive to curry favor with the agency head to get appointed, and they’re often more lapdog than watchdog.” Some acting IGs, such as Lynne Halbrooks, who recently left the Defense Department’s shop, “try to shield the agency from bad press” and overclassify documents, Brian said, recommending that the Defense Department IG not absorb the functions of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, as some have proposed.
“When I deal with the White House, I deal with interns,” Brian said. “There’s a growing ambivalence there toward IGs in general.”
Brian joined with Daniel Epstein, executive director of the legal group Cause of Action, in an opinion that the longtime acting State Department Inspector General Harold Geisel, a Foreign Service officer ineligible for the permanent job, might not have vetted Clinton’s unusual email arrangements as a permanent IG would have. “Obama’s decision not to appoint a permanent IG at State may have been political,” Epstein said, since “acting IG’s have the incentive not only to delay but to avoid investigations.”
Epstein said Obama should make use of the recess power of appointments as he has done to fill vacancies on the National Labor Relations Board. “He is able but not willing,” Epstein speculated.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., pronounced herself “dumbfounded” at the absence of a permanent IG since December 2013 at the troubled VA. “Mr. President if you are listening, the veterans deserve action and it’s in the president’s lap,” she said. In past congresses, Ayotte offered legislation to allow lawmakers to fill IG slots that remain vacant for more than 210 days.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., asked Horowitz whether IG salaries should be made public. He said yes, but compiling them “is complicated” because of differing schedules.
McCaskill replied that, “I will not rest until all the salaries are public. It’s a scandal that some make $300,000 at a small agency, and they hide it because they know we will go crazy once it’s public.”
Horowitz said the IG council has an active recruiting program to fill jobs that require someone who is “scrupulously fair” and who can handle that “being unpopular in an agency is part of the job.” The IG council has recommended more than 100 candidates since 2009, he said, but some get discouraged by lengthy confirmation delays, which he hopes the White House can help fix.
Democrat Carper defended the White House’s prerogative of keeping unconfirmed presidential advisers from testifying at the hearing, noting that President George W. Bush had the same policy to preserve the advisers’ ability to provide “unvarnished advice.”
The White House did not respond to Government Executive’s request for comment.
Johnson ended the hearing by promising to quickly move the nomination of Carol Fortine Ochoa to be the GSA’s IG, whose name Obama sent up in March. Having interviewed her May 20, he plans a hearing for June 17. In the meantime, Johnson said, “We will continue to apply pressure to the White House.”