Meanwhile, Democrats unleash a slew of proposals related to strengthening IGs and protecting their independence.
A Senate committee voted 14-11 on Tuesday afternoon to advance the nomination of White House lawyer Brian Miller to be Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery.
The IG position was established by Congress in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act to make sure public funds are not misspent during novel coronavirus relief efforts. The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee voted almost exactly along party lines, with Republicans and Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., supporting Miller. Experts and lawmakers had mixed reactions to Miller’s testimony last week, despite Miller’s claims he will provide effective and independent oversight if confirmed.
Miller has held a number of high-level positions in government since 1992. He served for nearly a decade as inspector general at the General Services Administration, and held senior positions at the Justice Department, including assistant U.S. attorney general, senior counsel to the deputy attorney general, and special counsel on health care fraud, among others. He has been working for the White House since December 2018 and is most recently known for denying the Government Accountability Office’s request for information during its probe of the administration’s handling of Ukraine aid, which led to the impeachment investigation of President Trump.
Before the vote, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., criticized Miller’s responses to follow-up questions regarding his response to GAO in December. “Miller’s response once again shows his willingness to hide the truth to protect the personal political interests of President Trump,” Van Hollen said. “It flies in the face of what’s required of an inspector general–transparency and impartiality. We need a Special Inspector General who we can trust to put the American people–and the truth–first. Based on his evasive answers, Brian Miller fails that test.”
In a related matter, Democrats, who have been pushing the Trump administration to be more transparent on testing, procurement and public health guidelines related to the pandemic, made several moves on Tuesday to signal their desire to protect inspectors general and oversight functions.
A group of Senate Democrats introduced a discussion draft of the “2020 Coronavirus Oversight and Recovery Ethics Act,” which would establish “for good cause” removal protections for inspectors general. The proposal also “requires that IG vacancies be filled automatically by the first assistant to the last IG, and that acting IGs enjoy civil service protections, ensuring that they have some recourse if they face retaliation,” said a summary. “Any member of the staff of an unlawfully fired IG would be allowed to file suit to challenge the firing, as would any member of the public harmed as the result of such action.” The Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency Integrity would review such firings or disciplinary actions.
The bill also includes provisions that would: ban conflicts of interest among contractors or advisers involved in relief efforts, strengthen the congressional pandemic oversight commission, require weekly reports of the executive branch “unreasonably” denying information requests, increase whistleblower protections and improve transparency of bailout funds.
House Democrats on Tuesday unveiled a new $3 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill that has similar provisions to protect IGs’ independence and would provide $145.5 million across various IG offices to support their pandemic-related oversight work.
Lastly, former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, said in a video released on Tuesday morning that if elected, on Day 1 he will appoint a “truly independent, non-partisan inspector general” to review coronavirus stimulus loans to big companies and political insiders, citing the “corrupt giveaways” from the Trump administration. If elected, Biden could be in charge of overseeing subsequent waves of the coronavirus or recovery efforts from the current one. Biden has experience with this type of work, having led as vice president the oversight of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the economic stimulus package.
Biden said the IG will be able to refer to the Justice Department any wrongdoing by companies or executives that he or she uncovers. The companies or executives would be punished and the government would take back any dollars given out corruptly. “That should start tomorrow,” Biden said. “But if it doesn’t, it will start on January 20, 2021.”
Correction: An earlier version said Miller's nomination was advanced to the full Senate. It was referred to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.