We’d like to believe that all federal employees are beyond reproach, that they perform their duties conscientiously, and that at all levels of service, they’re accountable to the public. Among other things, such an admirable level of service would reduce, if not eliminate, the need for inspectors general.
Unfortunately, IGs are necessary. That’s because not all federal employees are honest, even the honest ones make mistakes — sometimes costly mistakes — and accountability has a way of slipping through the cracks of a bureaucracy as massive as the federal government. Waste happens.
The need to combat it and to ensure public trust in government led to the Inspector General Act of 1978. It’s a good law. As a result of it, just about every Cabinet department and federal agency has an inspector general. Their function is simple: “... to detect and prevent fraud, waste, abuse and violations of law, and to promote economy, efficiency and effectiveness in the operations of the federal government.” IGs are ensured complete and unobstructed access to all pertinent information as well as administrative cooperation.
Most of the time, that’s the way it works. But America’s inspectors general aren’t happy with the Obama administration, one that has billed itself as the “most transparent” in American history. Forty-seven of the nation’s 72 inspectors general this month signed a letter to congressional leaders complaining that the executive branch has repeatedly interfered with their investigations.
Specific examples the letter cited were the Justice Department, the Peace Corps and the Chemical Safety Board.
In the most high-profile example, the inspectors general wrote that the Justice Department obstructed the investigation into the controversial gun trafficking scandal known as “Fast and Furious.” Also, the Peace Corps withheld records of sexual assaults against Peace Corps volunteers, and although some information has been made available, full access still has not been granted. The Chemical Safety Board complaint involves information that has been withheld from the IG on a discrimination case.
The inspectors general, some of whom were nominated by President Barack Obama, said such actions constitute “potentially serious challenges to the authority of every inspector general and our ability to conduct our work thoroughly, independently and in a timely manner.”
The president ought to act on these complaints, and not only because they undercut the credibility and accountability of his administration. Rather than bemoan congressional investigations — some of which are valid and others of which are politically motivated — the president ought to respond decisively, including by removing federal employees who attempt to obstruct inspectors general in the performance of their duties.
That alone won’t restore public trust in government, but preventing government watchdogs – the public’s watchdogs – from doing their duty will only further erode it.