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Marketplace Morning Report

Watchdog positions sit empty

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Oct 4, 2019
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Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson arrives for a closed door briefing before the House Intelligence Committee on October 4, 2019 in Washington, DC. Atkinson is on the Hill to discuss a whistleblower complaint regarding a phone conversation between President Donald Trump and a foreign leader. (Photo by Pete Marovich/Getty Images)
Pete Marovich/Getty Images

The intelligence community’s inspector general, Michael Atkinson, is a key witness in the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry — he brought a whistleblower complaint to lawmakers, which led to the inquiry. Atkinson was doing what inspectors general, embedded in federal agencies, are supposed to do: acting as a watchdog.

But nine of the top inspector general jobs in the federal government are empty, without even a nominee from President Trump. That’s about a quarter of the inspector general positions needing Senate confirmation. Acting inspectors general are on the job, but it’s not the same thing.

“For me, this is the substitute teacher phenomenon,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service.

Stier said that acting inspectors general just don’t have the authority of someone confirmed by the Senate. 

“It’s hard to bluntly speak truth to power when you’re not really sure what kind of authority you have,” he said.

The vacancies are at some of the highest spending federal agencies, including the Defense Department, Department of Health and Human Services, and Treasury Department. Some inspector general jobs, like at the CIA, have been empty for years.

“Those jobs are sometimes hard to fill,” said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “That individual is basically — within that department — a man on an island, or a woman on an island, because, you know, they’re seen as a watchdog.”

Tenpas also pointed out that the Trump administration’s personnel office is overwhelmed because there are so many vacancies throughout the  government right now.

According to Paul Light, a public policy professor at New York University, the inspector general positions may not be the ones presidents are most eager to fill. Inspectors general can bypass the president, going directly to Congress with concerns.

“They have dual reporting authority. They have a great deal of authority to ring the bell,” Light said.

There were inspector general vacancies under President Obama, too. But according to the Partnership for Public Service, by this point in the Obama administration, 11 had been confirmed, compared to eight under President Trump.

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