Many in the media and Congress are still demanding answers from the White House on the removal of Corporation for National Community Service Inspector General Gerald Walpin. Some have even identified a pattern of political meddling, accusing the administration of infringing on the independence of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) and other IGs at the International Trade Commission, Amtrak, and the Library of Congress.
We take these allegations very seriously, but after hearing some of the accusations being leveled at the White House, we'd like to clear up a few misconceptions.
This morning, The Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece subtly entitled "Abolish the Inspector General." In the Journal’s view, the media has given President Obama a free pass on the removal of Walpin and the possible infringement on the SIGTARP’s authority, whereas President Bush was repeatedly slammed with front-page stories about his administration's political meddling. This somehow leads the Journal to conclude that IGs should be eliminated altogether:
Can we suggest an alternative? Abolish the IG position across the government. IGs were chartered by Democrats when Republicans kept winning the executive branch. While some of them sometimes produce valuable work, mostly they answer to Congress by teeing up pseudoscandals and serving as witnesses for the prosecution. Their probes do nothing to curb federal spending, so why waste the money?
Mr. Obama professed to love the Inspectors General as a Senator, and he cosponsored legislation that bolstered their autonomy and required the president to give Congress a month's notice and a reason before firing an IG. Either the administration ought to abide by its own rules or get rid of the office.
Say what?? Even if you accept the argument that the media has failed to hold the administration accountable for the latest IG controversies, it's a pretty big leap to conclude that all IG offices are worthless and should be abolished.
There are two points to consider here. First, while POGO would be the first to admit that IGs could take many steps to improve their effectiveness, the Journal’s claim that IGs "do nothing to curb federal spending" is simply untrue. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently examined the monetary accomplishments of presidentially-appointed IGs in fiscal year 2007, and found that every dollar set aside for the IGs resulted in an average of $9.49 in identified savings for the taxpayer (see Appendix I).
Second, we disagree with the Journal’s claim that the administration failed to abide by its own rules on removing IGs. We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: the IG Reform Act of 2008 requires the president to provide an explanation to Congress 30 days before removing or transferring an IG. There’s nothing in the law that says it has to be a good reason. So when President Obama told Congress that he no longer had "the fullest confidence" in Walpin, he did technically follow the letter of the law. We don’t fault those who are demanding a better explanation, but if that’s really what Congress wants, they should amend the IG act to include a provision in the House’s version of the bill stating that the president can only remove an IG for a specified cause.
On another note, we read in Federal Eye this morning that Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) is also concerned that the stimulus legislation contains a provision that will allow the Recovery Act Transparency and Accountability Board (RAT Board) to meddle with an IG’s investigation. He’s worried this will have a “chilling impact upon the independence” of IGs.
It’s no secret that we’re big fans of Sen. Grassley (a.k.a. the Watchdog’s Watchdog), but we have to respectfully disagree with him on this one. As we noted a few months ago, Phyllis Fong, Chair of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, has already explained to Congress why these concerns are unfounded: 1) the RAT Board is composed entirely of IGs; 2) the Board is chaired by former Interior IG Earl Devaney, who has dedicated his career to investigating tough cases; and 3) another provision in the Recovery Act (Sec. 1527) explicitly recognizes the independence of IGs, and clarifies that they can deny any request made by the Board to initiate or terminate an investigation.
There are still many questions to be answered, especially about the administration's decision to remove Walpin and challenge the authority of the SIGTARP, and we applaud those in Congress and the media who are trying to get the bottom of it. But it’s important to keep the facts straight, and we’re concerned that some of the administration’s critics are starting to stretch the truth in order to make their point.
-- Michael Smallberg