Defending Inspectors General: What Congress Should Do

On May 29th, the Program on Law and Government and the U.S. & International Anti-Corruption Law Program at American University Washington College of Law co-sponsored a webinar on “Defending Inspectors General Under Fire: What Congress Should Do.” Joining co-hosts Professor Fernando Laguarda and Professor Nancy Boswell were: Danielle Brian, Executive Director of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO); and Walt Shaub, WCL Class of 1996 and Senior Advisor to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

Professor Laguarda started the conversation by asking Mr. Shaub to explain why Inspectors General matter to Congress. Mr. Shaub said that Inspectors General are the “peoples’ eyes” inside the government and, as such, matter especially to the Congress, which represents the people most directly. Ms. Brian weighed in to say that Inspectors General are one of three important “pillars” that ensure accountable and effective government, along with Congressional oversight and whistleblowers. Congress faces historic challenges in overseeing vastly increased federal spending, increased outsourcing of government functions to the private sector, and an Executive Branch that refuses (with support from the courts) to share information through ordinary channels. Inspectors General, who are statutorily accountable to Congress directly, are one of the only remaining avenues for transparency into the functioning of the government.

Professor Laguarda and the panelists discussed the unprecedented series of actions taken by the president targeting five Inspectors General in the past two months, including: (1) the removal of the Intelligence Community Inspector General; (2) the removal of the Acting Defense Department Inspector General (who had been in line to chair the Council of Inspectors General Coronavirus Task Force); (3) the removal of acting Health and Human Services Inspector General; (4) the removal of the State Department Inspector General; and (5) the removal of the Department of Transportation Inspector General. According to audience members from the Inspector General community, the effect of these actions has been to silence critics of the administration. Mr. Shaub pointed out that, when oversight officials have a choice of important matters to attend to, the president’s actions might make it more likely they will choose investigations and audits that are less likely to upset the White House.

The panelists discussed the response from Congress to these removals and whether enough had been done. While Mr. Shaub was critical of bipartisan efforts led by Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA), Ms. Brian said she disagreed and believed there is value to those and other informal outreach efforts. The response from the White House has been to claim that the president’s removal power over all Executive Branch officials is complete and unquestionable. Neither Ms. Brian, Mr. Shaub or Professor Laguarda agreed with that argument.

In terms of potential solutions, Ms. Brian supported legislation that would codify “for cause” removal protection for Inspectors General. Specifying a list of reasons to justify removal in advance would also enhance protection for these positions, she added. Both Mr. Shaub and Ms. Brian believed Congress should take more steps to fortify its use of the appropriations power to engage in oversight, as well. They discussed those ideas and others with Professor Laguarda.

Audience questions focused on whether Congress will see Inspector General removals as a real threat to its oversight authority and what responses could realistically be expected. In addition, there were questions about the viability of “for cause” removal protection given challenges to insulating executive branch officials in that manner. Both Ms. Brian and Mr. Shaub emphasized that it is important for the public to speak up and remind their members of Congress that oversight matters and attacks on the independence of Inspectors General merit urgent attention.

The full program was recorded and an archived copy can be accessed at this link.