Sen. Chuck Grassley called them “a force multiplier.” Former Attorney General William Barr said they have “the hardest job in any organization.” And Special Counsel Henry Kerner said that without a connection to them, his agency would be a “leaf in the wind.”
All spoke on Wednesday to an assembly of inspectors general staged on Capitol Hill to mark the 40th year since passage of the Inspector General Act. The all-day event delivered a mélange of praise, tips for improvement, and an ambitious future agenda that seeks more resources and sharing of administrative services.
The work of the government’s 73 watchdogs in search of waste, fraud and abuse is “more challenging in today’s polarized environment, but the good news is we are getting called up to do this work,” said Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general and chair of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. “After 40 years, the administration, Congress and the public see us as independent.”
Horowitz—who enjoyed a moment in the spotlight after having delivered last month a historic and lengthy report on the FBI’s handling of Hillary Clinton’s controversial email conduct during the 2016 election campaign—acknowledged that IGs work “in a narrow area.” The watchdogs “are not to settle policy disputes or political battles but answer whether our programs are working.”
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Today IG’s work in an era when “government is getting more complicated, and the issues are getting bigger,” he added.” That means IGs “have to evolve,” and “recognize that government is crossing lanes more.” IGs have to do more cross-agency work and grow “new competencies” in such areas as data analytics.
Forty years years of independence and a tricky dual reporting relationship to both their agency heads and to Congress was captured in a video of interviews with stars in the field. Beginning in 1978 with just 12 appointees, IGs began with no separate legal counsel and no separate budget.
Their origination was “post-Watergate, when no one trusted anybody,” said Peg Gustafson, IG for the Commerce Department and previously watchdog at the Small Business Administration. And in navigating the need to keep agency heads and Congress informed, “you piss everybody off at some point,” she added.
IGs went on to acquire greater powers through several pieces of legislation affecting their access to documents and creating their joint council of both presidentially appointed and agency-appointed officeholders.
The access to documents remains a challenge, many noted. “Even the impression that we don’t have access to all records undermines our investigations,” said Robert Storch, IG for the National Security Agency, in the video.
The value of IGs comes because “the executive branch is exponentially bigger than the legislative branch, so Congress’ ability to oversee agencies has become more difficult,” Grassley said. “Individual members [of Congress] on their own cannot force agencies to answer questions,” he said. So IGs are the “eyes and ears.”
Penetrating the 'Cloak of Secrecy'
Grassley also stressed the importance of whistleblowers to IGs’ ability to keep Congress informed. He estimated that more than 80 percent of the useful tips he gets come from whistleblowers, perhaps 8-10 percent from “investigating or crusading journalists” and perhaps 5 percent from staff. Whistleblowers and IGs “are the lifeblood” that allows Congress to “know what’s behind the agency’s talking points,” he said.
But in a flash of self-criticism, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who serves on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said, “I don’t think Congress responds enough to IG recommendations,” which she called “a treasure chest of good ideas.”
Her committee's chairman, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., called IGs “very important” to what he called the “public’s legitimate evaluation of government as inefficient and ineffective. We rely on IGs to provide the ideas because, who can possibly get their head around a $4 trillion entity?” he said. He said he couldn’t understand why IGs aren’t looked at “more cooperatively” by the agency heads.
For years, incoming agency heads were surprised that they could not give orders to the IG, as Defense Department deputy IG (acting as IG) Glenn Fine recalled from his days as Justice Department IG. Now it is common for IGs to sit in on monthly leadership meetings, several noted. Former Postal Service IG Dave Williams recommended that agency heads and IGs sit down with their staffs and “determine what they want and are afraid of, and what you want and are afraid of.”
The relationship will include “blowups,” said Gaston Gianni, former inspector general of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. “But you can disagree professionally.”
Several IGs talked of how they strategize to word their reports carefully to achieve fair press coverage despite the fact that many in the public regard much of their routine work as boring. “I viewed the press as the second place to go if I couldn’t get action from the agency,” Gianni said. “But I was not in the business of trying to get negative press on the agency—unless it needed it.”
Washington Post stalwart reporter Bob Woodward, who spoke to the IGs on the lessons of Watergate, recommended that they do more face-to-face interviewing to truly gauge what makes the subjects tick. Today, “the forces of secrecy are beating the forces of transparency,” said the longtime investigative reporter who is working on a book on the Trump White House. “The cloak of secrecy only gets wider and stronger.”
A major problem mentioned by nearly all was the high number of vacancies (13 at present) and the lengthy time frames for nominations and Senate confirmations. Daniel Levinson, inspector general at the Health and Human Services Department, said the latest numbers show that over the decades, the average number of days for IG nominations has been 290, with 120 days for confirmation, longer than for other high-level agency positions.
Horowitz said vacancies are “bad for government generally since the demands from Congress never end." He also worried about the “willingness of people to come to Washington do to these jobs.” He wondered whether qualified candidates outside the Beltway “can stand to wait two or three years for confirmation, and then they’re expected to be on the job in two weeks.”