House passes bill to speed an end to inspector general vacancies
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.
Sign up for The Fulcrum newsletter
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.