White House Threatens Oversight Independence

Inspectors General (IGs) keep government officials accountable by detecting fraud, waste, and abuse within agencies. Through their audits, investigations, and reports to Congress, IGs help restore faith that tax dollars are being spent effectively and efficiently. The metrics to judge the proficiency of IGs can be amorphous, with each office investigating unique and complex bureaucracies. One tactic to measure success is to estimate how much money these offices save the federal government in a year. In FY 2016, 73 Inspectors General “identified 45.1 billion in savings – representing a $17 return on every dollar spent on IG operations.” By this standard, IGs generally appear to be effective, saving the government enough money to fully fund all 73 Inspector General offices seventeen times over. But their success is dependent on receiving adequate funding from Congress to accomplish investigations.

Senator Claire McCaskill requested an evaluation by the United States Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC) of the President’s FY2019 budget request to determine the impact it would have on IGs. The report outlines various statutory protections designed to protect the IG’s independence through the budget process. One of many examples includes the Inspector General Reform Act of 2008, which requires that any “comments regarding the proposal” of funds by the Inspector General to be reported to both the President and Congress. While the president has the power to adjust appropriation requests, Section 8 of the IG Reform Act mandates the inclusion of “the IG’s initial budget estimate and any comments from the IG” if the IG believes that the president’s request would “substantially inhibit [them] from performing the duties of the office.” The purpose of these reforms is to “create greater transparency regarding the IG program and . . . to help ensure these offices are adequately funded and to protect against any punitive budget cuts.”

Undermining Independent Oversight, U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, Minority Staff Report, available here

According to the committee report, President Trump is defying statutory mandates. In his FY 2019 budget the President failed to provide the initial budget request from the offices of more than half of the IGs. In total, 16 IGs did not have their budget request reported: the Departments of Defense, Agriculture, Education, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Interior, and the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP). Of those, the White House requested $38 million below prior fiscal year funding for three offices (SIGTARP, Agriculture, and State), and recommended no increase for Housing and Urban Development. While it is possible the IGs did not believe that the President’s request would “substantially inhibit them from performing the duties of the office,” that seems unlikely. The proposed cuts to SIGTARP, for example, represent a 57% cut in their budget, severely limiting the number of investigations the office can conduct. The President violated his statutory obligation to report the initial budget request they received from IGs, thus curtailing Congress’ ability to “help ensure these offices are adequately funded and to protect against any punitive budget cuts.” It is immaterial that the President only reduced the budget of some of the offices in which he did not report their initial reports, while increasing the budget requests of others. By not reporting the initial budget requests, the President and agency leaders denied the Inspectors General the opportunity to communicate how much money is required to conduct adequate oversight. The budget request coming from the White House serves as the only amount for Congress to consider during appropriations, cutting the Inspectors General formally out of the process. If Inspectors General feel they are more beholden to the President than Congress intended, their independence will be eroded. By passing the IG Reform Act, Congress understood that Inspectors General could not be independent if the entity they were investigating was in control of their budget. If Congress hopes to promote independent IGs, then it must hold the President accountable.