Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., called the hearing to explore whether new legislation might be needed to give the inspectors general more leeway in filling vacancies if the president and the Senate delay too long.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., called the hearing to explore whether new legislation might be needed to give the inspectors general more leeway in filling vacancies if the president and the Senate delay too long. National Journal file photo

IG vacancies hearing devolves into political maneuvering

Inspectors General caught up in GSA scandal, White House competence and Senate delays.

The fact that 10 of the government’s 73 inspector general positions are vacant -- some for as long as three years -- was the agreed-upon subject for a Thursday House hearing. But what unfolded was a series of short debates over who gets credit for uncovering waste and whether IGs are feeding information to the White House before Congress gets it.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., called the hearing to explore whether new legislation might be needed to give the inspectors general more leeway in filling vacancies if the president and the Senate delay too long. He expressed particular concern about IG vacancies at the U.S. Agency for International Development at a time when the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down but U.S. funds are still pouring in. The main question was the severity of the damage from having vacancies or acting IGs.

“The Obama administration has often proclaimed its commitment to transparency and accountability,” Issa said. “That’s why it is so troubling that the president has allowed vacancies at several IG offices to linger for months, and in some cases years. Even more disturbing is the administration’s willingness to demonstrate a pattern of hostility toward the inspector general community.” He cited the firing of an IG for the Corporation for National and Community Service early in the administration’s term.

Issa initially announced that he would consolidate the two scheduled witness panels scheduled to testify at the hearing, but then was informed that U.S. Controller Danny Werfel would not be appearing. So Issa put Werfel’s previously submitted statement in the record, adding cryptically the reason Issa was tardy was that he was dealing with “another potential false dismissal of an inspector general.”

Werfel did appear for a second panel after the Office of Management and Budget objected to his testifying on the same panel as nongovernment witness Jake Wiens, an investigator with the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight.

Ranking member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., expressed concern about overextended vacancies at departments such as the State Department, but he pushed for a more bipartisan approach, citing the run-up to passage of the 2008 Inspector General Reform Act. He displayed a chart showing that IGs in the past three years have recovered misspent funds at rates exponentially higher than those of 2006. He also noted the George W. Bush administration had about the same number of IG vacancies in its fourth year.

“Nobody should be under the misimpression that the lights are turned off at IG offices while they await a permanent IG,” Cummings said, commending the staff for their dedication.

“The proof of the pie is in the eating,” added Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., saying the number of IG investigations, suspensions and debarments of bad contractors also are up. “These individuals do in fact provide very effective services,” whether they’re acting or permanent, he said.

Phyllis Fong, the IG for the Agriculture Department who chairs the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, said the council plays “only a small role” in appointments but a “significant role in the vetting process” through a panel that recommends potential candidates and publicizes the process.

General Services Administration IG Brian Miller said one reason for the delays might be “the usual incentives for taking a presidential appointment do not apply. The IG is not a policymaker, doesn’t do politics, but has to be fair and impartial” while having a dual reporting requirement, to the agency and Congress.

Even so, “Once selected and appointed, an IG needs time and experience on the job to develop, for example, long-term audit and investigative priorities, the ability to hire the highly specialized staff they need and the independence to accomplish their mission,” Miller said. “My permanent appointment allowed me the needed leverage and longevity to make lasting improvements to my office and to make long-term recommendations to GSA. Additionally, I believe my impact has been greater because I have been able to create long-standing relationships.”

Wiens also was concerned by the vacancies, which his group documents on a website. “POGO firmly believes that the effectiveness of an IG office can be diminished when that office does not have permanent leadership, especially when that vacancy exists for an extended period of time, as many of the current vacancies have,” he said. “But we also acknowledge that IG vacancies can begin and continue for a variety of reasons, some of which are problematic and some of which are completely appropriate. It is important to note that the negative aspects of an IG vacancy must be balanced against the need to identify highly qualified candidates and to vet those candidates thoroughly, a process that can -- and should -- take time.”

Issa pressed the IGs on whether White House liaisons placed in agencies have “unfettered access to information” to report back to the administration before the facts get to Congress, which depends on IGs to be their “eyes and ears.”

Miller said he “wouldn’t know,” and Fong said she “couldn’t follow the question.” But she agreed Issa had “put his finger” on the issue with the statute, saying IGs communicate with agencies immediately and take general concerns to Congress when that’s practical, which “requires some discretion and judgment.”

When Issa suggested new legislative language could give the IG council some authority to place qualified temporary IGs in jobs if the Senate and the president haven’t acted, Miller said he should study the Constitution’s appointments clause.

And when asked by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., whether the opinions and authority of acting IGs were treated any differently from permanent ones, Miller said they were not.

On the second panel, OMB’s Werfel recapped how IGs help the administration in such areas as reducing improper payments under the Campaign to Cut Waste and shutting down 1,000 unneeded agency data centers. Even though Obama has cut $1 trillion in discretionary spending, Werfel added, IG funding has remained “somewhat protected.”

Former committee chairman Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., accused the president of circumventing his constitutional responsibility by failing to name a State Department IG for three years. Both Burton and Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., asked Werfel why he and Office of Management and Budget acting Director Jeffrey Zients don’t do something about the vacancies.

“I challenge the premise of the question,” Werfel replied. “It’s not true there’s no watchdog when they have a staff in place. Vacancies have not produced any reduction in effectiveness, and the IGs keep us as busy as ever.”

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said such questions should be directed at the Senate, where many of the president’s nominees have been held up, and then asked Werfel “Why are you here?”

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, took the gavel and recapped the recent overspending scandal at GSA. He accused the administration of the worst “stonewalling” of information requests he’d seen in his career in Congress.

Mica stated GSA IG Miller had been tipped off about the lavish 2010 training conference in Las Vegas by former Transportation committee staffer Susan Brita, now GSA deputy administrator. Mica asked Werfel whether he knew White House deputy counsel Kim Harris, who, it has been reported, was alerted to the pending revelations of the scandal by the GSA chief of staff. “You’re in financial management, and you didn’t get the word?” he pressed Werfel. “There’s something wrong here. This is with an IG in place, so imagine what it’s like with no one minding the store.” Mica said he suspected Obama staffers don’t want IGs in place because they will spill information to Congress.

That prompted an interruption from Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who pointed out Miller had been in office since 2005 with 300 staffers, yet “saw no evil, heard no evil” as the Las Vegas event was planned. This IG, Connolly said, “is not entirely as heroic a figure as portrayed because he could have uncovered the story years before if he were doing his job.”

Werfel was largely silent, but did say, “we take IG findings very seriously, especially the financial parts, and we work with other agencies to understand them better, explore with the broader community about how to do better and foster strong relationships with IGs.”