The Prospect liked my previous pieces enough that they gave me the opportunity to take a follow-up writing test. This time around, they requested that I pitch a story for the mid-term elections and write three posts that could have been featured on the magazine’s group blog TAPPED. For the blog pieces, which I am posting on Hiar Learning, I tried to emphasize my analytical strengths in selecting the topics I chose to blog about. This first post has a slight environmental bent.
The Center for Public Integrity has published the results of a thought-provoking survey of vacant government oversight positions by John Solomon. The Center’s journalist-in-residence compiled a list of 73 inspectors general, chief auditors, or whistleblower protection positions across government and found that at least 15 are currently unfilled or being covered by acting officials.
Solomon makes a compelling argument that if the Obama administration intends to live up to its professed commitment to transparency, it must work to fill these important positions as soon as possible. “Over the years, government watchdogs have produced some memorable investigations, uncovering federal workers who watched pornography from government computers, revealing that federal housing vouchers were still being paid to dead Americans, and disclosing the FBI’s illegal gathering of phone records,” he notes.
There is nothing stopping the administration from immediately hiring inspectors general at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Communications Commission, the Labor Relations Authority, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Senate confirmation is not required to fill IG posts at these four agencies and, possibly the Federal Housing Finance Agency, too. (In the text of the report, it says the agency’s IG nominee is awaiting confirmation, but on CPI’s spreadsheet, it says the FHFAIG doesn’t require confirmation.) Since December, the House of Representatives has also had its own IG position to fill.
Why are the administration and Congress dragging their feet about these oversight openings? The remaining vacancies require Senate confirmations, which make them more difficult to fill. In some cases, however, the administration has yet to submit a nominee to the Senate for consideration. According to Solomon’s reporting this is problematic because acting officials lack “the authority, public standing, and ability to set the agenda that a Senate-approved, presidential appointee brings to the job, officials said.” Although career staffs continue to produce their audits and investigative work, the effectiveness of the office can atrophy without clear leadership. By way of example he notes that the website of the State Department IG, which has been without a presidential-appointed leader since January 2008, hasn’t posted a new press release since October 23, 2007.
Delays are the norm when a nominee (or bill, or cloture motion, or… anything) is sent to the Senate, generally because of minority party obstruction tactics. In this case, however, we have a handful of appointments that the White House—and, in one case, the Democratic-controlled House—could make without any Senate oversight. Other appointments are being held up by the simple fact that the White House hasn’t even submitted a candidate for consideration:
Administration officials say the president is working to make strong picks for each inspector general vacancy, and that candidates for three openings — they declined to identify them — are in the pipeline.
“The President takes seriously government oversight and accountability, which is why the administration has implemented the toughest ethics rules in history. Candidates for a number of these posts are in the vetting stage,” said White House spokesman Ben LaBolt.
This almost sounds like the administration was caught off guard by Solomon’s oversight of their oversight.
It is also curious that Senate Republicans have not moved to quickly confirm or reject the nominees the White House has submitted. IG’s have a delightful tendency to uncover embarrassing incidents that make great fodder for political campaign ads. There is no doubt that Republicans—and others—will begin asking why the Interior Department is still without an IG. In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion, one can only wonder if a presidential appointee with a mandate to reform the corrupt Minerals Management Service might have been able to prevent the oil drilling disaster now threatening to decimate the environment and economy of the gulf coast for years to come.
Photo credit: digiart2001 | jason.kuffer (via Flickr)