Who's Not Watching the Obama Administration?

Image: Who's Not Watching the Obama Administration? The House Committee On Oversight and Government hears testimony on the Benghazi attack. (Getty Images)

Thursday, 23 May 2013 05:58 PM

By Joseph Schmitz

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Joseph E. Schmitz' Perspective: As the Obama administration attempts to ride out three major scandals, a fourth has yet to make headlines: the lack of independent and effective Senate-confirmed inspectors general — essentially government watchdogs — in six of the largest federal agencies responsible for billions of dollars in taxpayer money.

No wonder the Benghazi whistleblowers feared reprisal for speaking out to Congress. The State Department has not had a Senate-confirmed IG since Jan. 16, 2008.

By contrast, the IRS targeting scandal, which has dominated the news this week, was the direct result of an investigation by the Senate-confirmed Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.

So is it any wonder that we had to rely on three State Department whistleblowers to make us aware of lingering accountability issues associated with the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist strike on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya — and subsequent efforts by government officials to perpetuate what many thought at the time — and we all now know — to be a deliberate fraud on the American people?

This smacks of political interference from the Obama administration to avoid acknowledging our vulnerability to terrorists in the final months running up to the presidential election.

One detail was clearly different between the Benghazi and the IRS scandals.

Unlike Benghazi, we didn’t have to depend on brave whistleblowers — dedicated men and women who suffered personal reprisals — to find out that our tax agency was abusing its authority and targeting tea party and other conservative groups for added scrutiny.

We are also left wondering whether the presence of an independent and effective IG at the State Department might have prevented some of the problems that led up to the murder of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans by bringing security concerns to the attention of Congress — and the American public before such an attack.

Perhaps the whistleblowers might have been able to tell us what was really going on without fear of reprisal.

While Congress defined the role of the watchdog IGs in civilian agencies some 35 years ago, protocol dictates that each agency head is typically responsible for vetting potential nominees for submission to the White House.

I suspect that no one very high up in the Obama administration has put pressure on the agency heads to fill these watchdog positions. It’s simply not in their political self-interest to move the process along unless the word comes from the top.

That's probably because under federal law, only the president — not the agency head — can fire an IG. What’s more, the president is required by statute to explain any removal or transfer of an IG to both houses of Congress "not later than 30 days before the removal or transfer."

In addition to the five-year-old State Department IG vacancy — dating back to the start of President Obama’s first term — another five agencies should have — but do not have — a Senate-confirmed inspector general:
  • Department of the Interior (1,550 days vacant)
  • Department of Labor (1,410 days vacant)
  • Department of Homeland Security (816 days vacant)
  • Agency for International Development (586 days vacant)
  • Department of Defense (516 days vacant)
These are also some of the largest government agencies that spend a lot of our tax money.

The federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 allows for acting inspector generals to serve “for no longer than 210 days beginning on the date the vacancy occurs, with some limited opportunities to extend that time for another 210 days.”

So why have these vacancies been allowed to go on for so long in the Obama administration — particularly when Democrats control the Senate?

According to The Project On Government Oversight (POGO), which maintains an on-line IG vacancy tracker called “Where Are All the Watchdogs?” the longest IG vacancy is at the State Department, which has gone almost 2,000 days — over five years — “without a permanent IG, at a time when the department has taken on the responsibility and challenge of managing scandal-prone private security contractors in war zones.”

Most Americans do not understand the role of an inspector general, which I explore in great detail in my new book, the “Inspector General Handbook,” based on my experience serving as the IG for the Department of Defense.

The inspector general concept is probably much more familiar to those who have served in the military, who remember the IG as a teacher and trainer, and as an investigator of wrongdoing.

While the military inspectors general typically focus on "discipline, efficiency, economy, morale, training, and readiness," their civilian counterparts are largely focused on preventing fraud, waste, and abuse of power by governmental agencies and officials.

Civilian inspectors general have responsibility to report on current performance and accountability, and to foster good program management, while ensuring effective governmental operations under the Inspector General Act of 1978, which created civilian OIGs (offices of the inspector generals to:

1. Conduct, supervise, and coordinate audits and investigations relating to the programs and operations of federal agencies.

2. Review existing and proposed legislation and regulations to make recommendations concerning the impact of such measures and the prevention and detection of fraud and abuse.

3. Provide leadership for activities to promote economy, efficiency, and effectiveness, and to promote efforts to reduce fraud, waste, and abuse in the programs and operations of agencies.

4. Coordinate relationships between federal as well as state and local government agencies, and non-government agencies to promote economy and efficiency, to prevent and detect fraud and abuse, or to identify and prosecute cases of fraud or abuse.

5. Inform agency heads and Congress of problems with programs and operations as well as the necessity for, and progress of corrective actions.

6. Report to the U.S. attorney general whenever the inspector general has reasonable grounds to believe there has been a violation of federal criminal law.

In addition to audits and investigations, all IGs — whether civilian or military — are charged with protecting “whistleblowers” against reprisal, and providing a ready means for any government employee who is aware of wrongdoing in his or her agency to report it anonymously for an impartial investigation.

The IGs promote greater accountability in government, ensure integrity and efficiency, and protect those who call attention to inefficiency and impropriety. That being the case, why has the Obama administration left inspector general positions vacant in six major U.S. government agencies (including the State Department), for as long as it has?

This is a question that Americans have a right to ask their elected officials, but particularly President Obama.

At a time when the costs of operating our government are rising — and the potential overreach of government has become a concern to many Americans — perhaps it’s time to get back to basic principles of American government: integrity, efficiency, and transparent accountability.

We need more — not fewer — independent voices in government.

The next time President Obama talks about transparency in his administration, perhaps someone should ask him why he hasn't done more to put Senate-confirmed government watchdogs in all of his agencies.

Maybe he wouldn't have to depend so heavily on the news media to find out what's going on in his administration.

Joseph E. Schmitz served as inspector general of the Dept. of Defense from 2002-2005 and is CEO of Joseph E. Schmitz, PLLC. He is author of the recently released “Inspector General Handbook,” which is now available on Amazon and elsewhere. Read more reports from Joseph E. Schmitz — Click Here Now.

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