So what’s the deal with these Inspectors General at the various agencies you’ve been hearing about? In the late 1970s, lawmakers believed federal departments and agencies needed an independent channel of oversight to complement the Constitutionally-mandated oversight role performed by the Legislative Branch. To that end, the statute was crafted.
The Inspector General Statute (Public Law 95-452) says that Inspectors General are established at departments and agencies:
“…to provide a means for keeping the head of the establishment and the Congress fully and currently informed about problems and deficiencies relating to the administration of such programs and operations and the necessity for and progress of corrective action;”
We believe the requirements laid out above are much needed today. The heads of agencies and the Congress must be kept fully informed about issues and potential problems with administering the huge sums of money provided by the recent CARES Act.
So we were pleased to see the additional sums dedicated to 15 separate Inspectors General in the massive response bill. As we said at the time, “…there is no more important time for oversight than now, when 100s of billions of dollars are about to start sloshing through the federal system.”
In all, more than $174 million was appropriated on top of whatever Fiscal Year 2020 Inspector General funds these agencies have already received. The largest additional sums seem to be correctly directed to agencies with the largest portion of recovery monies to disperse: Treasury, Labor, and the Small Business Administration, and of course the newly established Special Inspector General for Pandemic Recovery (SIGPR) to oversee the $500 billion pot of cash managed by Treasury.
The legislation also created a Pandemic Response Accountability Committee of all the involved Inspectors General with staff and a charter to oversee all COVID-19 related funding and programs past, present, and future. Similar to what the Recovery Act Transparency board did during the 2009 stimulus, the PRAC would also create an outward facing website so citizens could see where their tax dollars were going. The chair, executive director, and deputy executive director of the PRAC would be selected by Chair of the existing council of Inspectors General. Or so we thought.
The Trump Administration wasted no time in challenging the additional oversight, even as the president signed the CARES Act. The presidential signing statement is an attempt to undercut the underlying purpose of IGs – keeping lawmakers “fully and currently informed.” You can see it in the president’s disagreement with the law when he wrote:
“the SIGPR [is]to request information from other government agencies and requires the SIGPR to report to the Congress “without delay” any refusal of such a request that “in the judgment of the Special Inspector General” is unreasonable. I do not understand, and my Administration will not treat, this provision as permitting the SIGPR to issue reports to the Congress without the presidential supervision required by the Take Care Clause, Article II, section 3.
That’s not all, the first provision of the signing statement took on the requirement that council IG chair consult with Congress on the selection of PRAC personnel:
“… a requirement to consult with the Congress regarding executive decision-making, including with respect to the President’s Article II authority to oversee executive branch operations, violates the separation of powers by intruding upon the President’s power and duty to supervise the staffing of the executive branch under Article II, section 1 (vesting the President with the “executive Power”) and Article II, section 3 (instructing the President to “take Care” that the laws are faithfully executed). Accordingly, my Administration will treat this provision as hortatory but not mandatory. (Emphasis added.)
All this was bad enough. But then on April 7th the president fired the man selected by the Council of the Inspectors General to lead PRAC oversight of the $2.2 trillion that has already begun to flow into the economy. The Council had chosen the acting Inspector General at the Department of Defense, Glenn Fine. At the president’s direction, Mr. Fine was removed from his Pentagon job, making him ineligible to fulfill the duties outlined in the CARES Act. The president replaced him at DoD with the Inspector General of the Environmental Protection Agency, who will perform double duty. Presumably that puts the Council back at square one to find someone of stature for the role.
That was not the only attack on the IG community by the president. Mr. Fine was the second Inspector General removed by the president in less than a week’s time. President Trump also informed Congress of his intent to relieve the Intelligence Community Inspector General, Michael Atkinson, from his post, which started the clock on a statutory 30-day process for removal. The president also short-circuited that waiting period by placing Mr. Atkinson on immediate administrative leave.
Additionally, the president accused the career Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services of political bias in her recent report about shortages of supplies at hospitals responding the COVID-19 pandemic. After asking for the name of the HHS IG the President remarked, “Could politics be entered into that?”
We believe everyone should agree that oversight matters, especially when more than $2 trillion of extra cash is being pumped into the economy. Even – or perhaps, sadly, especially – in an unprecedented national crisis such as this, there are bad actors who will seek to cheat the system, enrich themselves, or commit other frauds. The future of our country is too important to gamble that a little fraud at the margins won’t harm our recovery.
We get it: no administration – Republican or Democrat – likes oversight. We had to fight for Special IGs for Iraq and Afghanistan reconstruction, one for TARP, and the stimulus RAT board. But this administration is taking it further, it’s as if they are over with oversight. That’s not how it is supposed to work under our constitution. It’s too easy to miss this part of the accountability puzzle while lawmakers are out of town and everyone (should be) physically distancing and sheltering in place.
We can’t let that happen. Inspectors General are an essential part of federal oversight. And #OversightMatters.
* Click here for all our recent work on oversight and Inspectors General.