Spring Cleaning or Spring Purge? Independent Inspectors General Need Congressional Protection

President Trump has had a busy few months. Between the coronavirus pandemic and ongoing civil strife across the country, he has found time to remove the Intelligence Community Inspector General, the acting Defense Department Inspector General, the acting Health and Human Services Inspector General, the State Department Inspector General and the Department of Transportation Inspector General, all over the course of several weeks. Meantime, President Trump has aggressively asserted his right to discharge any presidential appointee.

He’s not wrong about that, in part. The 1970’s gave rise to nation-wide discourse regarding integrity and accountability in the executive branch, stemming from President Nixon’s Watergate scandal. This birthed the Inspectors General Act of 1978 (the Act), which governs the independent and objective units we know today as inspectors general (IGs). The act explicitly outlines the President’s right to remove watchdogs under certain circumstances. But just because the President has a right does not mean he has a reason.

In fact, to prevent abuse of power, the Act requires that the president communicate to Congress, in writing, the reasons for removals or transfers 30 days before the personnel action. When firing both State Department IG Steve Linick and intelligence community IG Michael Atkinson, Trump used identical language, asserting he “no longer” had the “fullest confidence” in either IG. Days later, the President removed Acting Defense Department IG Glenn Fine, mistakenly alleging in a press conference on the removal that the IG was “from the Obama era.”

The president also made unsubstantiated claims about Christi Grimm, the acting U.S. Department of Health and Human Services IG, alleging she produced a “fake dossier” on American hospitals suffering shortages in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The chairs of the House Oversight and Reform and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committees called Trump’s recent replacement of Department of Transportation IG Mitchell Behm “the latest in a series of politically motivated firings.”

While President Trump has taken dramatic actions, this is not the first administration to fire IGs. In 2009, President Barack Obama employed ambiguous reasoning when he fired Gerald Walpin as inspector general of the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). The George W. Bush administration pushed both the IG occupying the same position at CNCS and the IG at NASA to resign.

The law requires presidents to explain the reasons for removing any IG, and it gives Congress time to respond. Bipartisan lawmakers insisted this process happened in the past. But President Trump’s statements on IGs have reflected significant political biases, as he has repeatedly declared his loss of confidence in IGs. Only a few Republican lawmakers have spoken up. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley announced his displeasure with the response from the White House, saying that it “failed” to meet the legal requirement of telling Congress the specific reasons for an inspector general’s dismissal. White House counsel quickly disagreed.  Explanations based on politics alone harm the credibility of all Offices of Inspectors General while creating a climate of paranoia that undermines their independence, especially in the midst of a global pandemic.

Noah Bookbinder, executive director of CREW, a Washington-based nonprofit watchdog group, echoed this sentiment: “You have to know these [decisions] are being made for the right reason.” The $700 billion bailout package passed after the 2008 financial crisis was implemented with little fraud or abuse, Bookbinder said, in part due to a “fully empowered IG, oversight provisions and aggressive oversight from Congress.”

Oversight of the executive branch is one of Congress’ fundamental responsibilities and IGs support Congress in this monumental effort. IGs perform a variety of oversight activities and hold institutional knowledge built up over extended periods of service at their agencies. In a time of heightened partisanship in Washington, Congress must have the ability to rely on unbiased and nonpartisan actors to collect facts, conduct investigations, and support Congressional inquiries in order to achieve the ultimate objective: flushing waste, fraud, and abuse out of the federal government.

If acceptable reasons are just pretext or rooted in partisanship disagreement, Congress should be concerned: the IG Act is broken. If the public views IGs as partisan hacks, IGs lose their power to conduct the kinds of investigations that have, in the past, uncovered government abuses: for example, the shooting of civilians during Drug Enforcement Administration raids in Honduras, sexual assaults in the Peace Corps and the F.B.I.’s antiterrorism powers.

Even while gainfully employed, inspectors general have endured a slow stripping-away of their oversight capabilities. As far back as 2015, Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department Inspector General, told the New York Times, “the bottom line is that we’re no longer independent.” IG Horowitz lamented the Obama administration’s efforts to restrict information to prevent unauthorized disclosures of sensitive information, which Congress corrected by passing the Inspector General Empowerment Act of 2016.

Historically, Congress has refused to implement a higher “for cause” removal standard, leaving inspectors general vulnerable to arbitrary or politically charged dismissals. Now, Democrats in the House seek to introduce a bill to protect inspectors general.

Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, Chairwoman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Representative Gerald E. Connolly, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Government Operations, and Representative Stephen F. Lynch, Chairman of the Subcommittee on National Security have introduced the Inspector General Independence Act to protect inspectors general across the Executive Branch.

This bill would give Congress a “mechanism” to review attempts by a president to remove inspectors general and would allow the firing of an inspector general only “for cause.” If passed, the “Inspector General Independence Act” would provide nine specific reasons for a president to remove an inspector general, including “neglect of duty,” “malfeasance” and committing a “knowing violation of law or regulation.”

All potential solutions require Congressional action. Danielle Brian, Executive Director of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), recently expressed her support for legislation that would codify “for cause” removal protection for IGs,  and suggested that a finite list of reasons to justify removal may enhance protections for watchdogs. Federal oversight in a time of unprecedented challenges and novel solutions is more important now than ever. Government transparency is recognized by Republicans and Democrats as integral to good governance. The passage of the “Inspector General Independence Act” would strengthen the independent audit, advisory, and investigative powers of all inspectors general for the benefit of the American people.