The inspectors general for federal agencies will have new legal protections as they investigate waste, fraud and abuse in the incoming Trump administration thanks to legislation signed this month by outgoing President Obama.
But open government advocates are concerned that in the waning days of the Obama administration, lawmakers are missing another opportunity to strengthen the watchdog community.
One-quarter of the 36 inspector general positions that require presidential nomination do not have a permanent agency head in place, leaving the positions vacant with acting inspectors general filling in and multiple nominees waiting for confirmation votes.
Sean Moulton, manager of the Open Government Program of the Project on Government Oversight, said he worries that, if the Obama administration doesn’t apply pressure on the Senate to act on the president’s inspector general nominees before he leaves office, the positions will go unfilled for a significant period in the Trump administration.
“The worry we would have is IGs are not always a high enough priority. The incoming administration already has a lot on their plate,” Mr. Moulton said. “My concern would be, if we get a good nomination and sit on it, we could be looking at months before the next administration gets to it.”
Inspectors general typically remain in office as presidential administrations change, and Congress took notable steps to bolster their authority this month by confirming two nominees to long-vacant watchdog posts. But one of the recently approved appointees was taken for another post, leaving nine presidentially appointed positions up for grabs.
In its presidential transition handbook, the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency encourages the incoming administration to promptly fill all vacant inspector general positions.
“The IG within each agency is a critically important position, and vacant positions should be filled with a permanent IG as quickly as feasible,” the report states.
Vacancies span from more than 2,800 days for the Department of Interior position to more than 200 days for the National Security Agency, according to the Project on Government Oversight.
The slate of Mr. Obama’s pending nominees will be wiped clean at the start of the year, meaning the president would have to submit the nominations again or let them sit vacant until Mr. Trump takes over and makes his own selections.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz, who chairs the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, said there is precedent for a new administration to renominate appointees from the prior administration.
By the nature of the work that inspectors general do, Mr. Horowitz said, a good nominee should not be a partisan choice.
“We want to pick people who, no matter who is in the White House or our agencies, are going to do the taxpayers’ work,” he said. “We are not going to curry favor and go out of our way to be unfair to an administration either. Those nominees should be people that either party can support.”
Though Mr. Trump has trumpeted his commitment to weed out waste, fraud and abuse as a way to balance the budget, his transition team has offered no indication of any nominees for inspector general positions.
Going forward, current and future inspectors general will have additional legal protections. Mr. Obama last week signed legislation that ensures investigators get access to documents sought as part of federal probes. Lawmakers drafted the Inspector General Empowerment Act to counteract a 2015 Justice Department legal opinion that forced federal inspectors general to get permission from agencies they monitor for wiretaps and other investigative information.
With civil liberties and advocacy groups raising concern over some of Mr. Trump’s nominees for some Cabinet positions, watchdogs say, one way to keep an eye on the activities of those agencies would be to have strong oversight through inspectors general.
With an incoming administration that wants to make changes rapidly, Mr. Moulton said, there could be a temptation to wait on appointing inspectors general.
“There is a possibility of any administration coming in, and you want to get a lot of things done, and when you get that kind of oversight that can slow things down,” he said. “That can make things more difficult and make it take longer. So there is a temptation that if I want to get things done, I’m making things easier on agencies by not having strong IGs.”
But Mr. Horowitz said the important role of rooting out wasteful spending or corruption within federal agencies should remain regardless of who is appointed or who is in charge.
“We are there to do our jobs no matter what,” Mr. Horowitz said. “I think the taxpayers need us under any administration.”