WASHINGTON ― Republicans are taking control of the executive branch and both chambers of the legislative branch next month, giving them essentially full control of the federal government.
So besides journalists, who will track what Attorney General Jeff Sessions does to the Justice Department’s civil rights portfolio? Or watch for conflicts of interest involving Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon? Or keep an eye on what Rick Perry does at the Energy Department, which the former Texas governor famously forgot he wanted to eliminate? Or make sure the General Services Administration isn’t doing any special favors for the president-elect on his company’s lease of the Old Post Office, now home to the Trump International Hotel?
That’s where the inspectors general could come in. Presuming President Donald Trump lets them stick around.
The federal inspectors general system was formed some 38 years ago, tasking the appointed official with the job of rooting out fraud, waste and abuse within federal agencies, offering recommendations that could save taxpayers billions of dollars. Effective ones try to help the agency implement reform when issues are discovered, and keep track of the top management problems at each agency. Trump, whose incoming administration will face a huge number of potential conflicts of interest, could put the work of federal watchdogs front and center.
Inspectors general not only conduct oversight, they help build trust and confidence in government among the public in an era when trust in the federal government is low. Voters just elected a candidate who has painted the nation’s government as entirely corrupt, and who at random calls for the dismantling of agencies. And while inspectors general disagreements with politically appointed agency heads are typically limited to sternly worded letters, it isn’t tough to imagine Trump getting into a Twitter war with a government watchdog who issues a report critical of his administration.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, expects inspectors general to be busier than ever under Trump, expressing concern over a number of the people the businessman has picked for his cabinet.
“With the Trump administration coming in, inspectors general will be playing a very, very significant role because he seems to, in some instances, lack transparency and seems to want to engage in secrecy at times,” Cummings told The Huffington Post.
Inspectors general are one of the “very few backstops” left, Cummings warned.
“When you have the government now controlled by one party you really must have something, somebody to look over the shoulders of these agencies,” he said.
There is, however, the potential that Trump could get rid of the inspectors general en masse. That’s something that hasn’t been tried since President Ronald Reagan fired most of the country’s inspectors general on the second day of his presidency. Reagan’s move caused significant controversy, and several of the inspectors general were eventually hired back.
“I think that left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth,” said Michael Bromwich, who formerly served as inspector general for the Justice Department. He noted that IGs were a “relatively new phenomenon” at the beginning of Reagan’s first term, and that there’s much broader recognition of the importance of IGs several decades later. Bromwich does not expect Trump to take the same approach.
“I think it’s unlikely that it would be repeated, because I think a lot of people are still around who remember that and what a fiasco it was,” Bromwich said. “But obviously one can’t be sure.”
Since Reagan’s move nearly 36 years ago, inspectors general have stayed on when presidential administrations change. But Trump has already broken with other longstanding traditions ― he’s the first major party candidate since 1976 not to release his full income tax returns, for example. If he wants, he could also decide to replace all of the inspectors general upon taking office.
“There is nothing stopping him from doing that,” says Nick Pacifico of the Project on Government Oversight, which tracks vacancies in inspectors general offices. “It’s sort of up in the air.”
If Trump did decide to discharge the inspectors general, he would have to provide an explanation to the House and Senate 30 days before any dismissal under current law. But his explanation to Congress doesn’t necessarily have to be very in-depth. When President Barack Obama dismissed the inspector general of the Corporation for National and Community Service in 2009, he simply stated that he “no longer” had “the fullest confidence” in Gerald Walpin, who was a George W. Bush appointee.
There are 73 federal inspectors general, about half of whom are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. They are required to be appointed based only on “integrity and demonstrated ability in accounting, auditing, financial analysis, law, management analysis, public administration, or investigations.” Politics isn’t supposed to come into play.
Though their role is meant to be nonpartisan, most of the permanent inspectors general currently in place are Obama appointees. But there are 10 presidentially appointed IG vacancies, including at the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense, the National Security Agency and the Office of Personnel Management. With just three weeks until Trump’s inauguration, it seems increasingly likely that the 45th president will eventually choose nominees to fill those key positions.
Leaving those positions open is a recipe for disaster, Bromwich said. “These are all very significant IG positions, and one concern I have based in part on what happened in the early days of the George W. Bush administration is the selection of nominees that kind of defy the nonpartisan requirement that’s in the statute,” Bromwich said. IG positions aren’t meant to be political handouts to allies and fundraisers, he said.
Bromwich also said there could be some increased friction between some inspectors general and agency heads given that many Trump nominees don’t have experience in the federal government. Individuals who worked in the private sector, for example, would not be used to having an independent watchdog on their back.
“I do think there’s a risk when you’re introducing so many people who have either never been in government service at all or who have never been in federal government service,” Bromwich said. “Getting them to understand and get used to what the requirements are, I think that will probably produce some additional work for IGs in terms of investigating allegations of misconduct.”
The Trump transition team did not respond to a request for comment on whether it expects to replace any or all of the inspectors general.
A bill authored by Cummings and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chair of the oversight committee, gives an inspector general more access to documents necessary in determining waste, fraud and abuse at an agency he or she oversees. One downfall, Cummings said, is that a provision granting the watchdogs subpoena power didn’t make it into the final bill Obama ultimately signed this month. (Chaffetz was not available for an interview by the time of publication.)
Cummings expects a “whole slew” of career employees at each agency to start lining up to talk to their inspector general, and some to come to Congress directly. When that happens, he hopes his Republican colleagues will stand by their promises to protect whistleblowers.
“When we show whistleblowers we are not going to protect them the whole whistleblower system falls apart,” Cummings said. “And if we don’t have whistleblowers we will have lost our last line of defense, and when I say ‘we’ I mean the American people.”
The role of the inspector general isn’t strictly adversarial. IGs can be an asset to an administration in that they can help head off potential problems before they balloon into scandals that change the course of history.
Take former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Her use of a personal email server to conduct State Department business became a major issue in her presidential campaign, and was a significant factor in her defeat.
One source who spent decades at the State Department pointed out that there was no permanent, confirmed inspector general during Clinton’s entire term as secretary of state. While there’s no way to know for sure, a permanent inspector general operating independently could have raised the private email server issue with Clinton’s team long before it dominated the political discourse as Americans chose the next commander in chief.
Now that Trump has been elected president, the role of inspectors general could potentially shift, as several potential agency heads appear to be opposed to the core mission of the agencies they wish to lead. Cummings said he’s troubled by some of Trump’s picks, like former Texas governor Perry to lead the Energy Department and Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. (The Energy Department, notably, currently lacks a permanent IG. Obama nominee Susan F. Beard has been awaiting confirmation since April.) Trump selected people who “are bent on basically taking apart the agencies that they are now being assigned to,” Cummings said.
But there are limits on an inspector general’s role. POGO’s Pacifico said IGs were an “invaluable check” ― particularly when one party controls the federal government ― and can give a unique perspective to an incoming administration to help ease a transition. It can get dicey, however, if IGs attempt to assert that an administration isn’t fulfilling its mission, as they are centrally focused on combatting waste, fraud and abuse.
“The problem is that there’s nothing in the law specifically that would allow them to make sure that an agency’s agenda is followed, and that is a main concern among many people,” Pacifico said. “The IGs don’t really have specific power aside from informing Congress what is going on.”
Bromwich said it’s “tricky” for IGs to look at whether an agency has fulfilled its mission because the executive branch has wide latitude to implement various statutes.
“The problem is that there’s nothing in the law specifically that would allow them to make sure that an agency’s agenda is followed, and that is a main concern among many people.”
“There certainly can be both program reviews and audits that an IG can do to get at whether a particular program authorized by Congress is in fact being implemented in the way envisioned by Congress and required by the statute,” Bromwich said. “But I think it may be trickier than most people think for an IG to go in and say ‘Oh, because he’s not devoting any resources to this program, he’s actually undermining the purposes of the agency.’”
Despite those limits, Daniel Feldman, co-author of The Art of The Watchdog and a criminal justice professor at CUNY, is hopeful they will prove themselves as a critical check in coming years. But it will all depend on who fills the posts.
“The effectiveness as a watchdog depends at least as much on who you are as on what you know,” Feldman writes in his book, co-authored by David R. Eichenthal. “The best public watchdogs combine a powerful indignation with relentless persistence.”
Feldman’s optimism for inspectors general is based on what he considers the inherent divisions between the different branches of government. “The legislative and executive are natural enemies,” he said in an interview.
“Institutional factors will themselves result in some degree of effectiveness of IGs,” he said. “If history is any guide, but maybe it isn’t, there is an institutional conflict and my best prediction is that at a certain point in time, no more than a year from now, you will begin to see friction between the legislative branch and the executive branch.”
“Yeah, there will be a honeymoon period,” he said. “But I doubt that it will last forever.”