For federal watchdogs, a bill with more bite

FEDERAL WORKERS

October 12, 2007|By MELISSA HARRIS

The U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill last week that would weaken White House control over inspectors general, the cadre of federal watchdogs tasked with auditing agencies and rooting out fraud and abuse.

The bill would put inspectors general on seven-year terms, prevent the president from firing some of them at will and allow them to submit and lobby for larger budgets than agency executives and the White House are willing to give them.

A companion bill in the Senate has yet to be acted on in committee.

But Maria Speiser, a spokeswoman for Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, said her boss is working on getting a committee vote before the November recess.

"We're very encouraged by the vote in the House because it's veto-proof," Speiser said of the 404-11 margin.

The White House has issued a veto threat, arguing that the changes trample on executive authority. The bill would circumvent "the President's long-standing, and constitutionally based, control over executive branch budget requests," according to the administration's policy statement.

As for the proposed rules permitting the president to fire some inspectors general only for gross mismanagement or wrongdoing, White House policy advisers wrote, "independence from supervision by the President raises grave constitutional concerns."

The effort has garnered bipartisan support amid a series of congressional investigations and news reports detailing cozy relationships and potential wrongdoing among inspectors general and agency heads. Some recent controversies include:

Allegations that the State Department's inspector general repeatedly thwarted Justice Department investigations into fraud and abuse among contractors working in Iraq and Afghanistan to prevent embarrassment for the White House. The Justice Department was investigating allegations that employees of private security company Blackwater USA were smuggling arms and that the State Department had mismanaged construction of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

A recommendation from a federal ethics committee that NASA Inspector General Robert "Moose" Cobb be punished or fired for mistreating his staff and repeatedly schmoozing, dining and golfing with senior agency executives.

The failure to investigate Vice President Dick Cheney's alleged role in the largest fish kill in the West. The Interior Department Inspector General cleared former presidential adviser Karl Rove of involvement, but never inquired about Cheney.

"The [Government Accountability Office] has found that $146 million was spent just in the last year for improper federal first-class and business travel," the bill's chief sponsor, Rep. Jim Cooper, a Tennessee Democrat, said on the House floor. "This is also why we need inspector general independence, because they're not going to be popular when they point out to their agency head or other senior officials in federal government that they shouldn't have been flying first-class."

About half the federal government's 57 inspectors general are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Agency heads appoint the remaining ones, who are not confirmed by the Senate.

In testimony before a House subcommittee in June, National Science Foundation Inspector General Christine C. Boesz said that she would value the ability to directly submit budgets to Congress.

"It would remove the risk of an agency inappropriately influencing an IG by threatening to withhold a funding request, and it would provide more transparency to the budget process," she testified.

But Boesz said she opposed a seven-year term limit. Most inspectors general rise through the civil service ranks, and qualified candidates may abhor the idea of trading in a secure position for an appointment.

"It is unclear to me whether this proposal would enhance IG independence, or, instead, produce unintended consequences," she said.

If you missed it ...

Sun reporters have written several articles of interest to federal employees this week.

On Monday, Harford County reporter Mary Gail Hare wrote about BRAC-o-tology, the science of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which is expected to bring as many as 60,000 jobs to the region.

The phrases and acronyms used to describe the move are so numerous and complex that a group of state and county officials has published a 12-page glossary of them.

The Sun's multimedia department paired the story with an online quiz to test your knowledge of BRAC lingo. (I scored a 7 out of 10.) To take the quiz, do a search on baltimoresun.com for "BRAC Alphabet Soup" and click on the link.

On Wednesday, Jamie Smith Hopkins reported on Maryland's chunk of the federal spending pie -- the third-largest per capita in the nation.

The state's economy, according to several experts quoted in the article, is increasingly dependent on that largess, and spending cuts, especially at the Department of Defense, would do severe harm to area contractors, who received $22 billion of those funds during fiscal year 2005.

To read the article, go to baltimoresun.com and search for "Md. Economy Bolstered by U.S. Millions."

The writer welcomes your comments and feedback. She can be reached at melissa.harris@baltsun.com or 410-715-2885. Recent columns can be read at baltimoresun.com/federal.

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