'More lapdog than watchdog'

A glut of acting inspectors general is a threat to effective agency oversight, watchdog groups told senators in a hearing that focused on speeding up the confirmation process.

Danielle Brian of Project on Government Oversight (POGO)

POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian urged the White House and Congress to act more quickly to fill IG vacancies.

Extended vacancies plaguing multiple agency inspector general offices risk placing acting IGs in a difficult position when pursuing investigations, outside watchdogs told lawmakers June 3.

Without a Senate-confirmed IG, agencies must make do with acting IGs, who can end up as “more lapdog than watchdog,” Danielle Brian, executive director for the Project on Government Oversight, told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Acting IGs are afforded fewer protections – they have fewer safeguards against being shuttled from one department to another, for example -- and consequently might attempt to curry favor with agency heads. The independence that is essential for IGs to conduct effective oversight is diminished in that circumstance, Brian said. The uncertain tenure of acting IGs can also lead to an avoidance of long-term investigations.

Examples abound. The troubled Department of Veterans Affairs has been with no Senate-confirmed IG for more than a year and a half; the Department of Labor has had no confirmed IG for more than four years; Interior has been in the same position for more than six. 

The question of whether IG positions have been left open for political reasons was raised by Daniel Z. Epstein, executive director of Cause of Action, who said that having fewer independent IGs could enable the administration to pressure acting IGs into not pursuing investigations that could lead to embarrassing revelations.

Acting IGs do not fall under the same statutory requirements as confirmed IGs, which can result in potential conflicts of interest, such as Ambassador Harold W. Geisel becoming the acting IG for the State Department. Epstein suggested that a permanent IG would have generated reports concerning whether Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was violating department protocol by using personal email for agency-related communication.

The tone of the hearing was expressed urgency for streamlining the recommendation and confirmation process with Brian mentioning the “general ambivalence” of the current administration toward IGs. 

The process takes “far too long,” said Michael Horowitz, IG at the Justice Department and chair of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE).

Horowitz noted that a simple title change -- from acting IG to deputy IG – can extend tenure past the mandated 210-day limit, which has contributed to extended vacancies.

The extended vetting process can discourage qualified potential candidates from ever seeking the position.

“Swift actions” were recommended by Horowitz to expedite the process. He called on the administration to respond with alacrity to CIGIE-recommended nominees and for the Senate to then act quickly to confirm them.