Drain the Swamp
Long Vacant Federal Watchdog Jobs Mean Billions Lost to Waste, Fraud
Inspector general system has faced chronic vacancies for many of these critical positions throughout the government
Dozens of inspector general (IG) jobs that have been vacant for years across the federal government have left departments and agencies vulnerable to billions of dollars worth of waste and fraud. It’s a problem President Donald Trump — who famously promised to drain the swamp — has yet to address.
“Unfortunately, too many IG positions remain unfilled and lack permanent leadership,” Project On Government Oversight (POGO) senior policy analyst Peter Tyler told LifeZette. “Thirteen of the 73 positions remain unfilled, some of which have been vacant for years.”
Tyler pointed to major agencies that lack permanent IGs, including the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the CIA and the Social Security Administration.
The issue spans presidencies and both major political parties. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for example, never had to deal with a permanent IG at the Department of State during her tenure from March 2009 to February 2013 as America’s chief diplomat.
The acting IG at state during Clinton’s tenure had been a diplomatic appointee during her husband’s White House tenure. Five months after Clinton left there, President Barack Obama nominated a permanent IG, Steve Linick, who was subsequently confirmed by the Senate and began cranking out reports highly critical of the department’s management under Clinton.
“Generally, this is a problem that has spanned administrations and political parties. The Department of Interior hasn’t had a permanent IG in over nine years.”
“But, generally, this is a problem that has spanned administrations and political parties,” Tyler said. “The Department of Interior hasn’t had a permanent IG in over nine years.”
The Partnership for Public Service (PPS) maintains a public tracker of federal vacancies and makes comparisons between administrations in collaboration with The Washington Post.
Trump has had 510 nominees confirmed for key positions that require Senate approval, 276 who are awaiting confirmation and 97 who failed to get confirmed. By comparison, Obama failed to nominate 41 by the midpoint of his first term, but had 721 confirmed and 175 sent but not confirmed, according to the PPS tracker.
“This isn’t a new issue,” Mallory Bulman, vice president of research and evaluation at PPS, told LifeZette. “Federal agencies have really had trouble filling these positions for some time. What typically ends up happening is you have someone who is acting in that role.”
The problem is that, according to Bulman, “In many cases, you have outstanding people who are serving as acting inspector generals. And they are very capable. But, again, it comes down to the independence issue.”
Presidents failing to nominate candidates is only part of the problem. The Senate must advise and consent on nominees. What has too often happened with IG jobs is either no one is being nominated or they are getting held up in the Senate awaiting hearings and confirmation votes.
“Vacancies rely on presidential nomination and Senate confirmation,” Tyler said. “The Senate needs to act expeditiously in either confirming or rejecting a nominee, while still doing their duty in properly vetting candidates. At the same time, the president needs to nominate candidates to begin with. It’s really a two-way street.”
Tyler said this problem has existed no matter which political party has controlled the presidency or Senate. “At the end of the day it really comes down to a recognition that these are important positions within the federal government,” he said.
Tyler’s group released a report on July 9 with recommendations to policymakers to improve the IG, with particular emphasis on unfilled IG jobs and encouraging presidents to make timely nominations.
“There are different reasons that positions haven’t been filled,” Bulman said. “It’s hard for me to say that it comes down to one thing. I do know that it is an issue across administrations. The important thing to remember with inspector generals is, it’s not a political position. This is really an independent individual in an independent office.”
The IG system was created in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter and Congress in response to a flood of stories in the national media detailing billions of tax dollars lost to corruption, waste and incompetence at the General Services Administration (GSA), DOD and numerous other departments and agencies.
October 12 will mark the 40th anniversary of the IG system’s creation by Carter.
Each of the 73 IGs currently mandated by the 1978 law are appointed by the president or, in some cases, boards drawn from agencies. They are confirmed by the Senate and answerable to Congress. That makes the IGs something of a hybrid, which was intended as a means of bolstering their independence from political considerations and parochial agency management interests.
“The oversight and watchdog community is tremendously important to the functioning of our democracy,” Bulman said. “We have inspector generals, where it really comes down to their independence. They are independent of the agency leadership. They are independent of the Congress. And they are really in a position to speak truth to power.”
Since their creation in 1978, IGs have saved taxpayers hundreds of billions of tax dollars. The 2016 Annual Report of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency has pointed out that the cumulative work of the IGs government-wide resulted in “potential savings totaling approximately $45.1 billion.” The total costs of 73 IGs and their staffs was $2.7 billion, so, for every tax dollar they cost, the IGs generated potential savings of $17.
Unfortunately, agencies don’t always listen to their IGs. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) data breach in 2015 could have been avoided if the agency had listened to its IG.
The incident resulted in millions of federal employees and retirees’ having their personal information, including their social security numbers, stolen by hackers. The OPM IG had been warning about the issue as far back as 2007.
“It led to the OPM director’s resignation,” Bulman said. “The breach itself was a surprise to everyone but the inspector general, who has been reporting for a long time there was holes in OPM’s information technology infrastructure. The IG has been really ringing the bell for some time, saying that this is a problem.”
“The Federal Vacancies Reform Act dictates who can fill in, and for how long,” Tyler said. “If someone sits for too long in an ‘acting’ role, their actions have no force or effect under the Vacancies Act. That’s a huge problem because an agency could be left unsure of which of the acting’s decisions stand.”
The Federal Vacancies Reform Act required executive branch agencies to report to Congress and Government Accountability Office (GAO) information about the temporarily filled executive agency positions when it was passed in 1998. The Comptroller General then reports on whether an acting officer is serving longer than the 210 days.
“The Vacancies Act is also largely self-reporting, and there is no method in the law for removing a noncompliant officer,” Tyler said. “So if an acting officer isn’t compliant in accurately reporting their time serving in an acting capacity, the situation becomes even stickier, because then declaring that their actions have no force or effect may have to apply retroactively — meaning their past actions might not be valid.”