Congress is so annoyed at how slowly presidents have nominated inspectors general that both parties want the reason down on paper.
The House passed a bill by voice vote Wednesday that would require a president to provide a written explanation whenever an inspector general's job has been open for at least 210 days without a nominee. It also would compel the president to estimate when a nomination is coming.
The current roster of vacancies is alarming to advocates for bettering democracy who focus on improved ethics and a commitment to open government. An IG's role is to be the independent watchdog posted inside a department or agency, investigating cases of waste, fraud and abuse and blowing the whistle with regular reports to Congress.
Of the 37 inspector general positions filled by a presidential nominee confirmed by the Senate, 11 are vacant — the job being done in some cases by acting or deputy IGs whose qualifications have not been vetted at confirmation hearings.
Some of the departments with the biggest budgets — including Defense, Education, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security — are without a confirmed IG.
Five of the jobs have been open since before the end of Obama administration. The Interior Department has not had an IG for more than a decade. President Trump has sent the Senate names to fill that job and just one other.
At a House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing in March, Democratic Chairman Elijah Cummings of Maryland said the "disturbingly slow" nomination process has been a problem through multiple administrations.
Forcing the White House to at least explain he it hasn't chosen new watchdogs is designed to speed the pace of nominations, if for no other reason than to avoid questions about whether preventing waste is a priority for an administration, said Rebecca Jones, policy counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, which last year released a report offering recommendations to strengthen the work of IGs and tracks current vacancies.
"That's not a question you want to have come up," she said. "Hopefully this will make it so that we don't even get to that phase because the president will prioritize nominations."
Last year the Government Accountability Office reported that 53 of the 64 major inspector general positions had been vacant at some point during the decade that ended in 2016, with the openings ranging from two weeks to six years. The law permitted many of those to be filled by an appointment, without a confirmation.
No one in the Senate has yet filed a companion to the House-passed bill. But two senators, Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa and Democrat Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, wrote to Trump last month urging him to "swiftly nominate qualified individuals to fill critical Inspector General (IG) vacancies" across the federal government.
- More than ever, inspectors general need stronger protection - The Fulcrum ›
- Inspectors General get some Senate GOP back up - The Fulcrum ›
Those involved with oversight of the executive branch should do more than simply investigate waste, fraud and abuse, one of the most prominent "good government" think tanks has concluded.
In a report released Tuesday, the Bipartisan Policy Center examined how executive branch agencies review their own operations and how Congress puts fresh eyes on the bureaucracy, analyzed the effectiveness of current practices, and offered recommendations to improve processes.
The report was produced by a collection of former federal officials assembled last fall to offer recommendations on improving the practices of both internal and external oversight.
The report is a follow-up from a study last year hailing the success of the inspector general's pursuit of uncovering abuse and fraud. The new report concludes that while such investigations are a necessary part of executive branch oversight, government watchdogs should also seek to broaden their focus to account for the performance of the agencies.
"While the compliance aspect of these investigative activities has surely been beneficial, the fact remains that most of the government is spending too much time complying with reporting requirements and not enough time accomplishing their missions," the new report concludes. "By shifting the emphasis of oversight to improved performance rather than compliance for compliance's sake, there may be meaningful program improvements that benefit both the federal government and the public."
The report's recommendations include bodies that provide external oversight increasing their focus on an agency's performance goals and more collaboration among both internal and external oversight bodies, in general.
"Effective oversight is multidimensional and entails more than just a compliance component," said Dan Blair, a senior counselor at BPC and former deputy director of the Office of Personnel Management. "It requires a framework that evaluates risk and assesses agency and program performance."
An arm of the legislative branch that conducts auditing, evaluations and investigations to inform the policymaking and oversight work of Congress. GAO stood for General Accounting Office from 1921 until the name was changed in 2004.
The top ethics office at the White House was kept vacant for a crucial six months of the Trump administration, and the president's lawyers sought to keep the situation under wraps, a watchdog group reported Tuesday.
The position was filled last month by Scott Gast, who has been an attorney in the White House counsel's office since the start of Trump' tenure. Stefan Passantino left the job in August and is now working for the Trump Organization, handling demands for materials and testimony in congressional investigations.
The half year when the job was vacant coincided with a particularly turbulent time in the West Wing – with a high degree of staff turnover, the climax of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation and a midterm election that created new oversight worries once the Democrats took control of the House. The top ethics officer's duties include setting and enforcing government ethics guidelines at the White House that prevent conflicts of interest, and the completion of officials' financial disclosure reports.
President Trump's failure to promptly fill the job "is consistent with his preference to leave important government positions vacant," according to CREW, or Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which reported the delay based on results of a Freedom of Information Act request. "Indeed, the president has allowed several agency Inspector General positions to remain vacant for the entire duration of his presidency. Vacancies, however, undermine the authority of acting officials and weaken morale in government offices."
CREW said the record it obtained suggested that the White House was not cooperative with either the Office of Government Ethics or the Government Accountability Office when they sought details of Passantino's decision-making or the delay in replacing him.