Federal agencies need their watchdogs
In January, Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., sent a letter to the White House co-signed by 14 other senators that urged President Obama to fill the vacant inspector general positions at six government agencies: the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Interior, Labor and State. Some positions, such as State’s, have been vacant for as long as five years.
“Inspectors General are an essential component of government oversight” and “occupy a unique role,” the senators noted. They specifically pointed to the IGs’ authority for “speaking truth to power” in addition to their “dual reporting obligations to their agency head and to Congress.”
The president has taken some action in the months since the letter arrived: Inspector general appointees for both the USAID and the Defense Department are pending Senate confirmation. The White House also announced on Thursday its plans to nominate a supervisor for the State Department, the subject of a June 25 letter from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, threatening to hold up its other nominees in the continued absence of a watchdog. These appointments are already overdue, and any further delays translate into more waste, fraud and abuse that might be prevented with proper oversight.
As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, the departments that lack permanent inspectors general account for approximately $843 billion in annual spending. How much of that money might be saved if each of these agencies had an official in place to manage institutional accountability? In 2007, for example, the inspector general of the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that about $700 million had been misspent in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. How many more millions have been wasted by agencies without official watchdogs?
None of this is to say that those agencies with interim or acting IGs are in danger of spiraling out of control. Temporary officials at Homeland Security and Labor, for instance, have issued 63 and 41 reports, respectively, and seem to be engaged in investigating their agencies’ activities, as well as monitoring the personnel they employ. Last year, between the beginning of April and the end of October, Homeland Security’s interim inspector referred nearly 200 cases for prosecution, of which 84 led to convictions. Between March and September 2012, Labor’s equivalent temporary appointee issued more than 350 indictments, which resulted in 230 convictions.
Still, acting IGs inevitably have less authority, and leaving these positions vacant for such long periods sends a message of disrespect for a mission that should be central to any administration claiming an interest in good government and frugal budgets. The White House should waste no more time in naming inspectors general for the remaining three agencies that lack them.