Senate votes unanimously to protect watchdogs

caphill.jpgAP | Facing a possible White House veto, the Senate has passed a watered-down version of legislation that would protect government watchdogs from political pressure.But Senate lawmakers say the measure, approved unanimously on April 23, still offers strong protection to shield inspectors general from undue influence by the government agencies they are charged with investigating and makes reports and audits more accessible to the public.

“This bill is key to preserving the IGs’ role as government watchdogs and making sure they can do their job of rooting out waste in this country,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., one of the authors of S. 2324.

The Senate bill leaves out several provisions contained in a similar bill passed in the House last year. The Bush administration threatened a veto over constitutional concerns it had with the House-passed version.

Under the House measure, inspectors would be appointed to seven-year terms and could only be removed from office for cause, such as neglect of duty, inefficiency, conviction for a felony or other inappropriate conduct. The House version also would require the independent watchdogs to submit their budgets directly to Congress in addition to the White House.

The White House complained that those requirements would encroach on the president’s constitutional authority to oversee executive branch employees and requests.

The new Senate bill includes no term limits for inspectors and would require the president’s budget to include how much money each inspector general requested and the amount recommended by the agency. The disclosure would allow Congress to see whether agencies are trying to hamstring inspectors by restricting budget funds.

It also requires Congress to be notified of any effort to remove an inspector general and establishes a new council to review any allegations of wrongdoing made against inspectors or staff members. Inspectors would be prohibited from accepting a bonus and would receive the same pay level as other senior agency executives.

“This bill is good government legislation at its best,” said independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. “It will strengthen the role of inspectors general as an independent investigative force, making sure that taxpayers’ dollars are spent efficiently and effectively while also guaranteeing that IGs themselves be held accountable.”

Despite the changes, House lawmakers are expected to be amenable to compromise. The House measure passed 404-11 in October, well above the level needed to override a veto.

“We’re happy they passed it and we’re going to work to pass that into law,” said John Spragens, a spokesman for Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., the bill’s House sponsor. “Whether it’s that version or a compromise version remains to be seen.”

Inspector general offices were created in the late 1970s to investigate waste, fraud and corruption. Audits and investigations in 2006 alone helped recover $6.8 billion in misspent funds and identified nearly $10 billion in potential savings, according to a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee report.

In recent years, inspectors at several government agencies came under attack after investigations uncovered poor performance or wasteful spending.

Half of the 58 inspector general offices are appointed by the president with Senate confirmation. The other half are appointed by agency heads.