There have been few victories of late for supporters of bipartisan governing in Washington, D.C. The often rancorous relationship between the two major parties has redefined congressional brinkmanship and brought us to the edge of government shutdowns numerous times.
Yet, last week saw a measure of nonpartisan cooperation in the U.S. Senate that should encourage even the most jaded observers of government. When the cause is right, Republicans and Democrats can cooperate for the greater good.
The Senate Judiciary Committee hosted a hearing titled, “All Means All: The Justice Department’s Failure to Comply with Its Legal Obligation to Ensure General Access to All Records Needed for Independent Oversight.” The hearing was called to discuss the latest efforts to constrain the U.S. Inspectors General (IG) system.
A little history: Last month, the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) issued an opinion that certain protections outlined in the Federal Wiretap Act and the Fair Credit Reporting Act supersede the Inspector General Act of 1978, which grants IGs unfettered access to “all” information necessary to conduct effective oversight.
At the hearing, committee Chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and ranking member Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, reiterated their strong support for giving the nation’s IGs access to “all” necessary information to carrying out their investigations. Grassley called the OLC’s ruling “68 pages of tortured logic,” and Leahy called for a bipartisan legislative solution that would ensure the IG at the Department of Justice has access to all records he needs to do his job.
These are heartening words of support for the IG system, long valued and highly respected for its proven abilities to root out waste, fraud, and corruption in the federal government. Yet, it is disturbing that the OLC’s ruling is just the latest in a series of recent events that are threatening to undermine this cherished institution.
In a formal statement on behalf of The IIA to the Senate Judiciary Committee and entered into the hearing’s record, I called for “clear and decisive legislative action” to give the nation’s IGs clear access to all information relevant to their responsibilities so that they may remain truly independent and free from the burdens of capricious restrictions.
From The IIA statement:
“As a former Inspector General, I can personally attest that a truly qualified IG with full and free access to ‘all’ information necessary makes a material difference in the effective operation of federal agencies and programs. It is therefore vital that both Congress and the President act quickly to protect the 37-year investment in the IG system by ensuring these hard-working public servants enjoy unfettered access to the information they need to do their jobs.”
As I said, the OLC’s ruling is just the latest example of the threats against the IG systems. Another is the ongoing problem of extended IG vacancies. The IIA has repeatedly called on the President and Congress to quickly appoint highly qualified candidates who are nonpartisan, independent, and aggressive in the discharge of their statutory responsibilities to fill those posts.
A fully qualified IG makes a material difference in the effective operation of a federal agency or program, and there are real dangers in filling vacancies with temporary administrators. Acting IGs may hold back on their duties. This is especially the case if they aspire to win the full-time position themselves and do not want to jeopardize their chances by doing something that might be viewed negatively by the Administration.
I urge all U.S. internal auditors to reach out to your elected federal leaders and tell them of your support for the good work of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the sound, bipartisan approach its members are taking to correct this impairment of the vaunted IG system.