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The Missing Eyes
The federal government contains no shortage of regulators and overseers involved in many aspects of American business. While these people watch out for potential misconduct in areas such as agriculture and commerce, a new report from the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) asks the question: Where are the watchdogs who are supposed to be watching the watchdogs?
The report (called "Where Are All the Watchdogs?") tracks vacancies in the offices of the inspectors general at federal agencies. At the time it was released in February, it found 12 vacant IG seats out of a total of 73 (16 percent)a number that was unchanged at press time. The vacancies ranged from spots that have been open for less than two weeks to oneat the U.S. Department of Statethat has been unoccupied since January 2008.
The nonpartisan POGO clearly does not see the IG vacancy rate as good news. "As the government looks for savings and as public confidence in government is historically low, it is inexcusable that we have so many inspector general vacancies," the report said, quoting POGO investigator Jake Wiens.
When contacted for comment, the Obama administration questioned the accuracy of POGO's report. Eric Schultz, from the White House press office, cited the special inspector general for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which POGO lists as vacant and without a nominee since March 31, 2011. "We have a nomineeChristy Romero," Schultz wrote in an e-mail to Corporate Counsel . "Nominated on 2/1/12." Asked for further comment, Schultz did not reply.
There are two kinds of vacancies, POGO's Wiens said in an interview. Some offices that are not required to have Senate consent to fill the position lack an IG simply because no one has been hired for the job. But for the larger cohort, the position requires the president to nominate an inspector general and the Senate to confirm the nominee. "Sometimes it gets a bit political, and the Senate wants to oppose the nomination," Wiens says, "and sometimes there's a legitimate issue with the nominee, and you have to go back to the drawing board." But in the case of the State Department, he says it's "absolutely egregious" that the IG position has been open for more than four years without a nominee even being put forward.
Why is this a big deal? Some of the agencies called out by POGO have faced investigations without the benefit of an independent IG's investigation, which can defuse charges of political bias or other issues that may arise during a partisan congressional investigation. The U.S. Department of Justice has been facing a congressional investigation into its controversial "Operation Fast and Furious," a firearms sting that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives ran along the U.S.Mexico border from 2009 to 2011. Yet Justice has been without an inspector general since January 2011. (President Barack Obama nominated Michael Horowitz for the position last July, but he hasn't been confirmed.)
"If members of Congress or the public are going to push for an investigation into high-ranking officials committing misconduct, it only works if all sides think the investigation is independent and credible," Wiens emphasizes.
The POGO report also calls inspectors general key figures in stopping government waste and misconduct, with the potential to save taxpayers billions of dollars each year. Wiens cited a Government Accountability Office report that, for fiscal year 2009, projected $43.3 billion in potential savings from audits and investigations conducted by IGs, which adds up to a savings of $18 for every dollar spent on an IG office.
Inspectors general are important, Wiens concludes, "because accountability is important."