Grassley Commemorates 40 Years of the Inspector General Act
Prepared Statement by Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa
Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee
At the 40 Year Celebration of the Passage of the Inspector General Act of 1979
July 11, 2018
As the Supreme Court has recognized, congressional oversight of the Executive Branch is fundamental to our system of checks and balances. It is inherent in the legislative authorities vested in Congress by the Constitution. It’s one of the most effective checks we have. But, we cannot do it alone.
Today, there are about 2 million unelected bureaucrats, not including contractors and the military. But if you include everyone who works for the federal government in one way or another, a 2015 study found the actual size is closer to 9 million. By contrast, there are only 535 Members of Congress, and about 16,000 congressional staff.
That means two things. One, there are a lot of layers between the People, who are sovereign in this country, and the folks making the day to day decisions about how the government treats the People. Two, the Executive Branch is exponentially bigger than the Legislative Branch. So, the need to make sure the government is accountable to the People has only grown more critical.
Congress’s ability to oversee the Executive Branch has also become much more difficult. That’s one of the reasons Congress passed the Inspector General Act. The Inspector General Act lists the purposes of creating inspectors general. They include keeping the agency head and Congress “fully and currently informed about problems and deficiencies relating to” programs and necessity for and “progress of corrective action.”
So, inspectors general are a force multiplier for congressional oversight. They are our eyes and ears in the Executive Branch. They help us make sure the work of holding the government accountable gets done. Congress does not have the time or the resources to look into all of the potential waste, fraud, and abuse in the executive agencies. Even our oversight committees and staff, who are focused on this work, do not have the capacity to investigate everything that goes on.
Inspectors general have more people, more resources, and more oversight tools. For example, IGs have criminal investigators, auditors and forensics capabilities. We all rely on inspector general reports to understand what’s going on inside agencies. Where is the waste, fraud and abuse? Where are there good opportunities to save more of the taxpayers’ hard-earned money? Are the laws being carried out the way Congress intended? Does Congress need to write a legislative fix? These are all questions that inspectors general help us answer.
Inspectors general also don’t have to struggle with interests that compete with institutional prerogatives, the way that Congress does. It is certainly each individual member’s responsibility to conduct oversight. However, individual members on their own typically cannot force agencies to answer questions.
Many bureaucrats seem to think they only have to answer oversight requests if they are forced to comply. But, for Congress to force the agency’s hand, you need to get members to work together to get access to information. It actually does happen a lot more than you probably think it does. I frequently send oversight requests and conduct interviews on a bipartisan basis.
But, given the way Congress is designed, achieving a broad consensus and having the will to act on information requests is often difficult. Members have a limited amount of time to deal with all the competing priorities for their constituents. Many times members don’t have the capacity to do oversight due to the weight of other responsibilities or the demands of party or electoral politics.
Inspectors General do not have this problem. Or, at least, they are not supposed to. Inspectors General don’t have to coordinate with others and they are not supposed to be political. They are supposed to be independent of agency management. The requirement of inspectors general to operate independent of politics and management tends to instill more confidence in their work.
That is particularly true when dealing with highly visible and controversial topics. Agencies tend to trust inspectors general more than they trust Congress, and Congress tends to trust inspectors general more than we trust the agencies.
Even if they are independent of management, inspectors general are still part of the Executive Branch. And, even though they are part of the Executive Branch, they still report independently to Congress. That’s very valuable.
Of course, sometimes the agencies are so allergic to independent review they even try to thwart the good work of the inspectors general. As you all know, the Inspector General Act required agencies to provide IGs with access to all records they needed to do their jobs. Agencies cannot be trusted to restrict the flow of potentially embarrassing documents to the IGs who oversee them. If the agencies can keep IG’s in the dark, then Congress will be kept in the dark too.
But, beginning in 2010, a handful of agencies, led by the FBI, began to refuse providing certain documents to IGs. Agencies started to withhold documents and argued that IGs are not entitled to “all records,” even though that’s exactly what the law says. The Justice Department claimed that the inspector general could not access certain records until department leadership gave them permission. Requiring prior approval from agency leadership for access to agency information undermines inspector general independence. That is bad enough, but it also causes wasteful delays. It effectively thwarts inspector general oversight. This is exactly the opposite of the way the law is supposed to work.
But in 2015, the Office of Legal Counsel doubled down and singlehandedly overturned this critical provision in the Inspector General Act. So Congress had to pass another law to say that we meant what we said the first time.
The Inspector General Empowerment Act clarified that the inspectors general should have access to all records, notwithstanding any other law. Of course, we can’t stop there. Just because we pass a law does not mean agencies are always going to follow it. So if inspectors general start running into this kind of resistance from their agencies again, they need to tell Congress.
Finally, I want to say a word about whistleblowers. Whistleblower Appreciation Day is coming up soon, and I’ll have even more to say then. But for now, we all know how important whistleblowers are to oversight. Justice Department Inspector General Horowitz has called them the “lifeblood” of his organization’s work. I couldn’t agree more.
Whistleblowers know what’s really behind the agency talking points. They can tell you when you’re being lied to, or only getting part of the story. They know where to find waste, fraud, and abuse. Inspectors general need to keep working with whistleblowers, protecting their confidentiality, and constantly looking for ways to make sure they understand the laws that protect them.
Since Congress required inspectors general in 2012 to dedicate a “whistleblower ombudsman” in their organization to help with this they’ve done a pretty good job. And over the past couple of years, those ombudsmen have communicated well with each other, the office of special counsel, and Congress to try and leverage resources and knowledge appropriately.
Based on what we have learned, my colleagues and I put together the Whistleblower Protection Coordination Act. The President just signed it into law on June 25, 2018.
The new law is designed to make sure these positions are permanently dedicated to ensuring whistleblowers are properly informed. The position will also have the ability to help the IGs continuously monitor and improve the whistleblower protection programs in their own organizations and across the federal government.
I am pleased that we can celebrate 40 years of partnership in the critical work of oversight with inspectors general. But we can’t rest on our laurels. Oversight is never really finished, so we have to stay vigilant. I look forward to continuing our work together.