Nine of the government’s top watchdog jobs — the independent officials charged with handling whistleblower complaints and keeping an eye on unusual agency activity — have not been filled by President Donald Trump.
Trump is supposed to nominate candidates to fill the top inspector general job at the Pentagon, Central Intelligence Agency, Environmental Protection Agency and departments of Health and Human Services, Treasury and Education, according to a congressional committee letter to the White House.
Those positions – which also include permanent IGs at the Office of Personnel Management, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission — need Senate confirmation.
The government has 74 IG positions. Most are appointed by the president, and about half require Senate confirmation. The Obama administration also faced similar vacancy issues.
“This is exactly what senior officials want, limited oversight of their activity,” said Irvin McCullough, national security analyst for the nonpartisan Government Accountability Project, a watchdog group, about the unfilled positions.
The role of the inspector general erupted into the public spotlight this week.
It was a whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s president about investigating former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter that triggered the House impeachment inquiry.
The whistleblower sent the complaint to Michael Atkinson, the Intelligence Community’s inspector general, who then sent it on to Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire. Democrats contended Maguire should have informed congressional intelligence committees about the complaint.
Under questioning from Rep. Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican, Maguire told the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday that Atkinson conducted “a thorough investigation” within the 14-day timeframe he had to investigate the complaint.
“And under that timeline, to the best of his ability, made the determination that it was both credible and urgent. I have no reason to doubt that Michael Atkinson did anything but his job,” Maguire said.
But the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel found the complaint did not involve a matter of “urgent concern” and that Maguire did not have to report the complaint.
To Washington government reform groups, the incident appears to confirm the value of an independent inspector general who can encourage an atmosphere where employees feel protected and comfortable if they become whistleblowers.
“A whistleblower by nature is caught up in controversy. The inspector general makes sure he’s protected,” Beth Rotman, director of money in politics & ethics at Common Cause, said.
In agency after agency, those jobs are often filled by an acting or deputy IG.
Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who chairs the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, understood the reluctance to fill the jobs.
“Put yourself in the position of a department or something. Do you really want an IG?” he asked.
One reason for the delay in filling those vacancies could be that the Senate’s confirmation process is so slow that the White House may be reluctant to send up nominees, Johnson suggested. He blamed Democrats, who are in the minority in the Senate, for routinely dragging out the confirmation process.
Even with the vacancies at the top, spokesmen at the IG offices continue to actively perform their duties.
At the Department of Education, for instance, Deputy Inspector General Sandra D. Bruce is in charge, and under her leadership, the office “has continued to conduct its work and fulfill its statutory mission without interruption,” IG spokeswoman Catherine Grant said.
At Health and Human Services, where Principal Deputy IG Joanne Chiedi has been acting IG since June 1, “Our mission has continued without skipping a beat,” said IG spokeswoman Tesia Williams.
Johnson is concerned, though.He and Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, the governmental affairs committee’s top Democrat, sent a letter to Trump last week. “We urge you to take swift action to address the vacant inspector general positions in the federal government.”
The letter, also signed by five other Republicans and five Democrats, noted that the “lack of a permanent IG can create the potential for conflicts of interest and diminish the essential independence of IGs.”
Their fear is without a top in-house watchdog confirmed by the Senate, it’s tougher to expose inefficiency and even corruption.
“You don’t have the ability to push back when that independence issue comes up in quite the same way,” said Michael Horowitz, who has served as Justice Department IG since 2012, when he was confirmed by a Senate voice vote. He spoke at a House government operations subcommittee last week.
“There’s a certain authority that comes with that when you come before Congress or when you deal with Congress and when you deal with your leadership, because they know you’re there,” he said. “They know they can’t remove you.”
Rotman and others cite instances where IGs have uncovered widespread abuse.
Among the most controversial in recent years was the $800,000 spent by the General Services Administration on a lavish 2010 “Western Regions Conference” in Las Vegas.
And then there’s the current controversy. “The stunning alleged misconduct of the president urging election interference by a foreign power was almost covered up until the IG stepped in,” said Rotman. “Who knows what other threats to our democracy are out there right now?”