After Six Years, It’s Time to Confirm a Defense Department Inspector General
IGs perform a critical role in holding powerful officials and government agencies accountable, and the Senate should confirm a Defense IG when it returns from recess.
It has been six years since the Defense Department has had a permanent, presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed inspector general. Currently, a qualified nominee to be the Defense IG, Robert Storch, is pending before the Senate. But his confirmation is being held up by one senator, Josh Hawley of Missouri, for reasons having nothing to do with Mr. Storch.
The Senate has prioritized the confirmation of other positions, including others at the Defense Department, by holding floor debate to override a Senate hold. But it has not done so for the Defense inspector general.
It’s long past time to fix that. The Senate should quickly confirm the Defense IG nominee when it returns from recess after the midterm elections.
The delay in approving a permanent Defense watchdog illustrates the dysfunction in the nomination and confirmation process, particularly with regard to inspectors general. Reforms in that process are also needed.
First, how did we get here, with no permanent IG for the Defense Department, the largest agency in government, for more than six years?
In January 2016, the last presidentially appointed Defense IG, Jon Rymer, resigned from the position. At the time, I was the Defense Department’s principal deputy inspector general, and by virtue of my position, I stepped into the acting IG role.
In July 2016, President Obama nominated me to be the permanent IG. But the nomination came in the middle of the 2016 presidential campaign. The Senate took no action on the nomination, and it lapsed when a new Congress and President Trump’s new administration took office in January 2017.
For the next 3.5 years, I continued serving in the acting IG role. During that time, Defense Secretary James Mattis advised me: “You are the acting IG, so act.” I took his advice to heart. I tried to lead the IG office, as I had when I was the permanent Justice Department IG for 11 years, by not hesitating to make changes or hard decisions required of an IG.
But to be clear, serving in an acting position is not the same as being the permanent office holder. Some people in the agency—and some even in the IG’s office—think they can wait you out, because you may not be there for a long time. They may not respond to IG reports or recommendations with the same urgency. And a permanent IG can more readily set strategic policy and make long-term personnel decisions.
In March 2020, after I had served for over four years in the acting role, President Trump removed me from my position just after I was selected by my fellow IGs to head the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee, which provided oversight of the $5 trillion in COVID-19 relief funding. He named the newly confirmed IG at the Environmental Protection Agency to serve simultaneously as the acting Defense IG.
It's hard enough to provide oversight of one agency as an IG. It’s virtually impossible to handle two IG jobs, particularly when one of them involves the largest agency in government.
After President Biden took office in January 2021, it took the new administration more than 10 months to nominate a candidate to be the Defense IG in November 2021. Fortunately, Mr. Storch is a qualified, experienced nominee, who has been the deputy IG at the Justice Department and currently serves as the presidentially appointed, Senate-confirmed IG at the National Security Agency.
Mr. Storch’s nomination received widespread support, and the Senate Armed Services Committee unanimously voted him out of committee in March 2022. But now his nomination is stalled in the Senate, and has been sitting on the Senate’s Executive calendar for months. Sen. Hawley has placed a hold on all Defense nominees, including Mr. Storch, in protest of the administration's withdrawal from Afghanistan. There is no indication that Sen. Hawley, or any other senator, questions Mr. Storch’s qualifications for the IG position.
Most presidential nominees get confirmed by unanimous consent of the Senate. But if a hold is placed on any nominee by even one senator, the Senate must spend precious floor time to debate and override the hold. While the Senate has done so and confirmed some other Defense nominations despite Hawley’s holds, it has not done so for Mr. Storch’s nomination.
That, in my view, is a mistake. IGs perform a critical role in overseeing government, in holding powerful officials and government agencies accountable. As I noted in a recent article in The Atlantic, IGs have been called some of the most important officials you have never heard of.
It is not good for an IG’s office, or the agency itself, to lack a permanent IG for a long time. As fellow Republican Sen. James Inhofe stated in response to Sen. Hawley’s hold on Defense nominations, “it is better for national security and for our country to have Senate-confirmed officials leading the Department of Defense.”
Moreover, the Government Accountability Office recently opined that the EPA IG’s appointment to also serve as the acting Defense IG violated the Vacancies Reform Act, and that he is still serving illegally, another reason to quickly confirm Mr. Storch as the Defense IG.
In addition to the Defense IG, other federal IG positions have remained vacant for too long. For example, the Treasury Department has been led by an acting IG for more than three years. The State Department has been led by an acting IG for several years, and no one has even been nominated for the position, almost two years into the new administration. Eleven other IG positions remain vacant.
The nomination and confirmation process, particularly for IGs, needs reform. Presidents should make the selection, vetting and nomination of IGs a priority. For example, as the Project on Government Oversight has proposed, the Vacancies Reform Act could be amended to require the president to inform Congress when an IG position has been vacant for 210 days, the reasons for no nomination and a target date for the nomination.
In addition, the Inspector General Act should be changed to prevent a president, as President Trump did in some agencies, from naming a political appointee to serve as an acting IG. Because the IG is supposed to be a non-partisan position, the acting IG should be a senior career person within the IG’s office.
And the Senate should make confirmation of IGs a priority, not an afterthought. The Senate should confirm Mr. Storch promptly when it returns from recess, even if this requires floor time and a vote. Six years without a permanent IG at the Defense Department is far too long.
Glenn Fine, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, was formerly the inspector general of the Justice Department and the acting inspector general of the Defense Department.