We don’t hear much about the inspectors general who work quietly behind the scenes to keep our government relatively efficient and free of scandal and corruption. Every major federal agency and program has an inspector general, a nonpartisan, independent official whose staff investigates cases of wasteful spending, criminal activity, employee misconduct and plain bad management. Given the current state of our federal government, these inspectors are more needed than ever. But …
Just before Trump’s inauguration, an email went out from Katie Giblin, a member of Trump’s transition team, to the inspectors general to let them know that Trump would be considering firing them en masse. The email said that they would be held over only on a temporary basis and that they should seek other employment. Some inspectors general assigned to cabinet departments received the information by a phone call
A bit of history about the Office of Inspector General. Following scandals in federal programs, inspectors general were placed in a dozen agencies by an act of Congress in 1978. The law tasked the inspectors general with conducting audits and investigations of their departments and issuing reports to Congress and their agency heads. Their goal is to ferret out deficiencies and problems for corrective action. Today there are 73 inspectors general, nearly half of whom are appointed by the president, while the rest are appointed by their agency chiefs. Reflecting their nonpartisan role, inspectors general typically stay in their positions when presidential administrations change.
After much protest from the inspectors and a scheduled hearing by the House Oversight Committee, the Trump team reversed course. According to Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, the email and phone calls were a mistake made by a junior person on the transition team. Problem solved, right? Well, not quite …
So, to continue the story, the inspectors general and their staffs did not get ‘done in’ by the axe, but are instead being depleted through attrition. Trump’s administration, if it can truthfully be called such, is failing to hire for open positions and planning to slash the offices’ budgets. Michael Horowitz, chairman of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, recently reported to Congress that in fiscal 2015 alone, the offices identified $26 billion in potential savings and recovered an additional $10 billion through criminal and civil cases. That’s a return of $14 for every dollar in the offices’ budgets.
Let us look at some of the other past successes as a result of these investigations.
- In 2008, for instance, the Interior Department’s inspector general, Earl Devaney, delivered three reports to Congress detailing widespread corruption and conflicts of interest in the division overseeing the oil industry, leading eventually to a thorough departmental reorganization.
- The special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction found weaknesses in planning, executing, and sustaining $488 million worth of American investments in Afghanistan’s extractive industries.
- Inspectors at the Department of Homeland Security unearthed technical problems that resulted in cost overruns of 480 percent while increasing national security risks.
- The inspector general for the Social Security Administration discovered $345 million in underpayments to 50,000 people.
- Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program has gone after 96 bankers; at least 36 of whom went to prison.
These guys do good work, but today nearly one-quarter of inspector general offices have either an acting director or no director at all, including the offices at the C.I.A., the National Security Agency, the Department of Defense and the Social Security Administration. The inspectors’ offices are deeply affected by the current federal hiring freeze and would be further harmed by the administration’s proposed budget cuts. The budget takes unexplained specific aim at the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, created in part to monitor the $700 billion taxpayer bailout for big banks. In 2015 its investigators helped prosecute General Motors for covering up a defective ignition switch responsible for at least 15 deaths, securing a $900 million settlement. The administration wants to cut its budget in half, to $20 million.
It is no mystery why Trump & Co wish to derail the Office of the Inspector General and its staff … its function is oversight, and that is exactly what Trump does NOT want. But it is what We The People must demand, for it is our tax dollars that are being wasted, and further, we do not want to allow the Trump tribe to have free rein to do as they please with no accountability. Congress has demonstrated bipartisan willingness to step up for inspectors general in the past. Now it needs to protect the watchdogs from an administration that wants to starve them.