Congress gets value from inspectors general

President Trump fired Michael Atkinson from his post as inspector general of the intelligence community. This week, the administration ensured that acting Pentagon inspector general Glenn Fine will not oversee coronavirus relief. To White House allies, these seemed like natural steps in an environment where everything is seen as political. As former White House aide Cliff Sims put it, Trump shouldn’t “be subjected to his political enemies in supposedly apolitical oversight roles.”

To transparency advocates of any ideology, Trump’s actions should be troubling. Inspectors general should be a vital part of Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” that he repeated on the campaign trail in 2016.

Spending on inspectors general just might be the best regular investment our government makes. They ensure that government is accountable to its citizens and that taxpayer money is not wasted. A recent progress report to Congress found that every dollar invested in inspectors general returns more than $22 in potential savings. Following their recommendations each year would yield savings of more than $50 billion. Other reports have found potential savings of up to $67 billion.

Since the late 1970s, inspectors general have been one of the few bright spots for taxpayers as government, spending and deficits have expanded. These watchdogs are tasked with eliminating the proverbial waste, fraud and abuse that fiscal conservatives often highlight as the reason to oppose substantial government programs. They have a proven track record of taking on the noble task of rooting out corruption, even in the toughest circumstances.

During the financial crisis in 2008, most fiscal conservatives, myself included, strongly opposed the large bailout packages coming from Washington. Legislation such as the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) were aimed at stimulating the economy, but many of us also saw moral hazard in propping up irresponsible actors. We argued that these laws were mistaken attempts to socialize losses after years of privatized profits and could provide a treasure trove of misspent cash as the government rushed to dole out money.

But, while it garnered far less attention, the worst of our fears on that front never came to pass, thanks to the strong oversight an inspector and recovery board provided. In fact, one investigation found that only $7.2 million was lost to fraud in the first two years — that is, “about 0.001 percent.”

Sure, $7.2 million is nothing to sneeze at, but consider that experts had warned at the time that 5 to 7 percent could be lost — that’s between $36 billion and $50 billion.

But inspectors general don’t just make sure money is not wasted. The inspector general for the Justice Department helped uncover a plan by meatpacking executives to sell uninspected and adulterated meat. The Department of Veterans Affairs’ inspector general announced it would investigate allegations that Secretary Robert Wilkie tried to find damaging information on a woman who reported being sexually assaulted at a VA hospital. Other governmental organizations, such as the Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Budget Office, and outside taxpayer watchdogs can play a similar and valuable role for ensuring efficiency, but there is one key difference — these organizations rarely have the access afforded to IGs.

This unique value was made clear in December when Americans learned for the first time that their government had been lying to them for over a decade about the war in Afghanistan. Broken in these pages, The Afghanistan Papers laid out mind-boggling corruption and mismanagement at the highest levels, belying the years of public assurances that the war was going fine, gains were being made and victory was just around the corner in America’s longest war. The reality was anything but.

None of these revelations would have been possible in the first place had the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) not conducted hundreds of interviews with prominent decision-makers over the course of years. Outside watchdogs could — and did — criticize the rising costs and apparent stalemate, but the extent of the scandal would have been lost to history without the inspector general.

Trump’s recent move to weaken coronavirus-relief oversight threatens to create another generation of lost accountability. During an unprecedented pandemic, the Cares Act is the largest economic relief package in history, setting in motion over $2 trillion in spending on items including direct relief, expanded unemployment aid and business support.

Like TARP and the Recovery Act, the Cares Act created a new, independent inspector general to oversee the distribution of relief funds and, perhaps most importantly, produce reports on who exactly receives funding and how much. As before, this structure would have the potential to stop waste and fraud before they begin. The creation of real oversight reassured fiscal conservatives and fans of small government who gulped at the price tag.

Real oversight would also not just be responsible; it would be good politics for a president struggling to preserve his legacy amid an international emergency and be a shield against inevitable criticisms that will emerge if dollars begin to be doled out in a nontransparent or inappropriate manner. Investing any amount of money without independent oversight — not to mention such an enormous chunk — is a recipe for misspent funds and scandals.

While it’s true that inspectors general serve at the pleasure of the president, unlike many appointed positions, they commonly serve across administrations because their function isn’t partisan. Another way of phrasing Trump’s pledge to drain the swamp is a commitment to rooting out waste, fraud, abuse and corruption — the exact mission of an inspector general. The president would be wise to rethink his decision regarding Cares Act oversight and enlist a truly independent inspector general to assist him in his cause.

This essay was previously published by the Washington Post.

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Topics: Oversight