Congressional Inspectors General Left Out of Reform Plan

Posted January 14, 2008 at 6:48pm

The in-house watchdogs at federal agencies are poised for both increased independence and heightened Congressional oversight, thanks to legislation in both the House and Senate that would set new guidelines for inspectors general.

There’s only one hitch: Legislative branch agencies may not reap many of the benefits afforded to their 60 or so federal peers.

Their exclusion seems to be the result of political strategy and legal roadblocks. Including legislative agencies could have unintended legal consequences, and doing so could mean slowing down the bill’s passage.

It could also affect the separation of powers. Since the vast majority of inspectors general are in the executive branch, incorporating the legislative branch agencies could have raised questions about how much the two branches should intermingle.

“We had to be wary of it because some of it creates a cohesive unit,” said Adrianne Marsh, spokeswoman for Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who introduced the Senate bill on the issue. “It could make the bill potentially more vulnerable.”

The rules governing inspectors general have long been criticized. About half are appointed by the president, while the others are hired (and fired) by the agency head. Either way, some have questioned whether the internal watchdogs have enough autonomy and Congressional protection to effectively criticize and investigate their own agencies.

Several bills were introduced in 2007 to address these concerns, making a slew of changes to how inspectors general report budgets, receive raises, get legal advice and release reports. One of the bills passed the House in October. Introduced by Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), it never mentions legislative branch agencies, largely excluding them by default. McCaskill’s bill goes a little farther, directly applying one provision to the Library of Congress, Government Printing Office and Capitol Police that requires agency chiefs to give notice to Congress if firing an inspector general. It passed the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in November and is now in conference with Cooper’s bill.

Executive branch inspectors general have been positive about the legislation. They also have addressed the partial exclusion of their legislative peers, asking Members to consider giving them the same autonomy. But the criticism has not been harsh; passing McCaskill’s bill as written would be the most comprehensive overhaul of inspector general offices for decades.

“Consideration needs to be given to the treatment of these legislative branch IGs: whether to include them within the unified IG Council and whether to extend to them the same statutory independence and operational authorities as are being considered for [other agencies],” Agriculture Department Inspector General Phyllis Fong said in her testimony to the Senate Homeland Security Committee in July.

The problem lies in the fact that the legislative branch inspector general positions were not created by the 1978 Inspector General Act — the statute that both Cooper and McCaskill aim to change in their respective bills. Instead, each agency gained an IG through separate legislation and is linked to the 1978 act in varying degrees. Giving them the same pay restrictions as the executive branch, for example, may not fit; furthermore, doing so might require a separate section for each agency, tailored to each legislative inspector general’s statute. And more legislative inspectors general already are popping up; the omnibus spending bill passed last month included an inspector general for the Architect of the Capitol’s office, and another bill in the House would do the same for the Government Accountability Office.

While they all may get only a few reforms this time around, the bill is only the first step, a McCaskill aide said.

“This is definitely an open question,” said the aide, who asked to stay anonymous while talking about upcoming legislation. “We don’t feel like this is one of those that is just signed and done.”