Bill aims to enhance independence of inspectors general

Idea of setting renewable seven-year term limits for IGs draws mixed response.

Current and former inspectors general on Wednesday supported legislation aimed at strengthening the independence of IGs.

The measure (H.R. 928) introduced by Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., would update the 1978 Inspector General Act and mirrors similar measures presented over the past five years. The latest version comes amid a wave of recent battles among inspectors general, agency heads and congressional overseers at NASA, the General Services Administration and the Commerce Department.

Under provisions designed to enhance independence from agency heads, the legislation would set renewable seven-year term limits for IGs and stipulate that they could only be removed from office for a list of offenses including malfeasance, neglect of duty and "inefficiency."

The measure would also codify an existing IG oversight group, the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency, into a statutorily chartered council and would allow it to submit independent budget requests to supplement those forwarded by agency heads. In addition, it would close a pay loophole under which career employee IGs often are capped at a pay grade below that of their top subordinates, by ensuring that IGs are considered at the level of agency senior staff members.

Two current and three former inspectors general, as well as witnesses from the Government Accountability Office and Congressional Research Service, weighed in on the measure at a hearing before a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee, providing generally positive feedback. Several expressed reservations about term limits, saying they could introduce a "lame duck" mentality. One witness said career civil servants could hesitate to take a seven-year job at the relatively low pay rates in effect for IGs.

Several supported an alternative that would not impose a term limit but would require that agency heads give Congress 30 days notice of the intention to remove an inspector general, though some said the strategy would be meaningless unless Congress had clear power to act on such a notice.

The idea of legislating "removal for cause" language for IGs won less support, with some witnesses expressing reservations that justifications included in the draft bill -- such as "inefficiency" -- were not clear or did not include all the concerns that could make an IG's performance unacceptable.

Clay Johnson, the Office of Management and Budget's deputy director for management and the head of both IG oversight groups, took issue with the idea that IGs do not always perform to their maximum capacity. "I've never heard a report that an IG's work is less than it can or should be," Johnson said during an exchange in which Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., expressed frustration that NASA IG Robert Cobb has not been fired in light of an investigation that found problems with his performance.

Johnson said the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency's investigative procedures need a review, but he opposed several of the provisions in Cooper's proposal, including term limits and the ability of IGs to submit separate budget requests.

Johnson expressed skepticism about the idea that IGs require greater independence. Arguing that the interests of agency heads and IGs reflect the shared goals of uncovering problems and making the agency better, Johnson said, "I just don't agree at all that there's pressure to hide things that don't work."