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The Inspector General Shortage

Appointing more of them would instill much-needed public confidence in institutions.

UPDATE: After The Wall Street Journal originally published this op-ed:

Just before the release of the Mueller report, Attorney General William Barr reminded Congress that another report is coming soon. Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz is wrapping up his related probe focusing on how the government handled the Trump-Russia investigation.

If history is a guide, Mr. Horowitz will lay out the facts objectively, accurately and in meticulous detail. His office previously produced a 514-page report on Operation Fast and Furious and a 568-page report on the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Both were widely accepted as authoritative due to the quality of the work and Mr. Horowitz’s credibility as neutral and fair.

A reputation as a straight shooter is rare. Most Americans don’t trust the press, politicians or bureaucrats to tell the truth. Those in government who can stand above the political fray and instill public confidence, as inspectors general often do, are more vital than ever. Yet too many federal agencies have no watchdog on duty.

The process for appointing an inspector general is long and rigorous. First, a nonpartisan committee of current inspectors general provides a list of recommendations to the White House. Then potential nominees go through the extensive vetting that all presidential appointments receive, including a review by the Office of Government Ethics. Then there is Senate confirmation, with written and live questions from senators of both parties, often in two separate committees, before the nomination makes it to the floor. This process helps ensure an inspector general is an impartial fact finder, but it also takes up an enormous amount of time and political capital.

Often, that political capital is spent elsewhere and positions go unfilled. No Senate-confirmed inspector general has been on duty at the Interior Department in more than a decade. The State Department’s inspector-general position was vacant from 2008–13. Nearly a dozen presidentially appointed inspector general positions are vacant now, including the Central Intelligence Agency (unfilled for four years) and the Defense Department (three years).

Short-term thinking by elected leaders in both parties contributes to the problem. Unlike other appointees, inspectors general aren’t partisan and their independence can put them at odds with the political leadership at the agencies they oversee. This can lead an administration to view their confirmations as less important than those of other appointees who are clear allies to the president and his agenda. But waiting to nominate inspectors general often ends with their positions going empty. During presidential election years, the party out of power often tries to slow-walk confirmations in hopes of regaining the White House and nominating inspectors general more to their liking. When power changes hands, the long cycle begins again. The gamesmanship is predictable, but the cost is less oversight and less trust in the executive branch.

That’s why confirming inspectors general should be a higher priority for everyone. The system uniquely positions them to be neutral arbiters who remain accountable to elected leaders. Inspectors general can access all of their agencies’ information but independently report to the president and Congress. They don’t have lifetime tenure, but do stay through political transitions. That’s why an Obama nominee, Mr. Horowitz, oversees the Justice Department in the Trump administration. The president also must give notice to Congress before removing an inspector general, making it hard for the executive to block oversight that’s politically troublesome.

The Senate currently has only two names to consider for confirmation as inspectors general: Joseph Cuffari at Homeland Security and Mark Greenblatt at Interior. Both have extensive experience working in the offices of inspectors general, and no senator has publicly opposed either of them. The Senate should confirm them, and the White House should name qualified, confirmable candidates to fill the other vacancies as soon as possible.

Mr. Foster, a former chief investigative counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee, is a senior fellow at Good Government Now.

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