Even phrases like the buck stops here are inflated these days. Senator Chuck Grassley wants to reduce government waste in the $10 Billion a day government spending and is calling for a new super inspector general.
Under the Inspector General Act of 1978, today nearly 70 IGs provide audit and investigative oversight throughout the federal government. The IG community itself is huge. The seven largest IG offices alone cost taxpayers almost $1 billion a year.
Over 30 years, IGs haven’t always exercised enough independence. Either they’re not fully committed to the IG mission of rooting out waste and mismanagement or they get intimidated by agency heads who don’t want an aggressive IG snooping around. The lack of IG independence has existed whether Republicans or Democrats control either the White House or Congress. I saw it during the past eight years with the Bush administration, and I see it again today. The question is whether the Obama administration is taking IG damage control to a new and more disturbing level.
I’ve been a strong advocate for government watchdogs and spent a lot of time on congressional oversight and investigation, so I have high hopes for what Obama has said about making the federal government more transparent and accountable. At the same time, there are recent allegations of the administration undermining IG independence. Whether the claim that the IG for AmeriCorps — the federal program that sponsors volunteerism — was fired for reporting waste at a pet project is true or not, the decision to get rid of the IG sends a signal from the White House that could have a chilling effect on IG work.
It could turn other IGs into lap dogs afraid to ask tough questions and expose problems. In the wake of the firing of the AmeriCorps IG, the president needs to do what he can to lead government oversight back on track. He needs to send a clear message to the IGs that he wants them to aggressively root out waste, fraud and abuse and, most important, that he’ll back them up for doing so.
Considering how the TARP Inspector General is having such a hard time and cannot find out where the U.S. taxpayer money is going, maybe it is time to set up a watchdog agency with as much power as the ones they are watching.