Reps. Elijah Cummings, left, and Darrell Issa introduced the bill to expand IG authority.

Reps. Elijah Cummings, left, and Darrell Issa introduced the bill to expand IG authority. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Watchdogs Would Gain Subpoena Power Under House Bill

Oversight panel’s bipartisan approach would also speed up IG ethics probes.

This story has been updated to include comment from Sen. Tom Carper.

Following a series of hearings on alleged agency stonewalling of inspectors general, the Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Tuesday approved a bipartisan bill to expand watchdogs’ subpoena power and streamline ethics probes by the IG council.

The Inspector General Empowerment Act (H.R. 5492) would authorize inspectors general to write testimonial subpoenas for federal government contractors and former federal employees.

“With inspectors general facing obstruction by agencies, this legislation provides much-needed tools to our independent watchdogs as they work to reduce agency waste and mismanagement,” said Oversight panel Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who introduced the bill with ranking member Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., and Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.

“Under this administration, inspectors general have encountered unprecedented hindrance to their oversight efforts,” Meadows said. “This important legislation will ensure that IGs, who provide impartial insight into the conduct and management of federal agencies, will not be politically stonewalled.”

Agencies accused of stonewalling include the Justice Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Chemical Safety Board.

Cummings emphasized that he initially had qualms about the bill’s granting of what he called “significant new authority,” saying in a statement after the committee voice vote that “it is important that we include safeguards, however, to protect against the possibility of an IG abusing unilateral power to issue subpoenas.”

The bill would require IGs to get two reviews before issuing a subpoena, one from the Council of Inspectors General for Integrity and Efficiency, and a second from the attorney general, who would have 10 days to object.

Another of the bill’s provisions would limit the IG council to 60 days to decide whether it will perform an ethics review of an inspector general, and require completion of the review within six months.

Cummings noted as an example the two years during which Paul Brachfeld, watchdog for the National Archives and Records Administration, was paid to stay home while under investigation for sexual and racial harassment before retiring.

The bill would also exempt inspectors general from the Paperwork Reduction Act, Cummings noted.

As for the bill's prospects in the Senate, an aide to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee told Government Executive that Chairman Tom Carper, D-Del., has supported a number of the bill’s elements and has long supported efforts to make sure IGs have adequate tools.