May 22, 2012

INSPECTORS GENERAL serve an invaluable purpose in government, ferreting out waste and corruption and exposing internal wrongdoing. According to a September report by the Government Accountability Office, audits by inspectors general saved $43.3 billion in public funds in 2009. But 10 of the 73 federal inspectors’ posts are vacant — eight at Cabinet-level departments, including State and Interior. Four of the positions have been vacant for the entirety of the Obama administration. These vacancies are the result of presidential lassitude in filling the spots and, to a significantly lesser extent, of congressional failure to act on the few nominees that have been sent to the Senate for confirmation.

The critical role of inspectors general was underscored in a recent report by the inspector general of the Government Services Administration (GSA). The report exposed the agency’s profligate spending on employee training conferences. As a result, GSA Administrator Martha N. Johnson resigned and her two deputies were fired. Meanwhile, more than 30 GSA employee conferences have been canceled, and other federal agencies are reexamining their expenditures.

With the GSA under fire, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a useful hearing on the vacancies. Of particular importance is the absence of an inspector general to oversee the State Department, which will soon take over responsibilities in Iraq from the Defense Department. Harold W. Geisel, a deputy inspector general and former U.S. ambassador, has filled the post since 2008.In the job, he has doubled the department’s staff and carried out key investigations. But fully instated inspectors general are far preferable to their acting counterparts, both substantively and symbolically. As former Securities and Exchange Commission inspector general H. David Kotz told the committee, “It’s difficult to utilize the full effect of an office in an acting function.” Committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) warned that the vacancies “weakened the effectiveness of the inspector general community, thus exposing American taxpayer dollars to waste, fraud and abuse.”

The White House insists that it is committed to a robust inspector general program and, as spokesman Eric Schultz told us, is “working diligently to identify the best candidates to fill these unique posts.” Mr. Schultz noted that the president has made a number of inspector general nominations, most recently for the Department of Homeland Security and the Corporation for National and Community Service; those two nominations have languished for months.

The president has a responsibility, which he has not fulfilled, to nominate candidates for those inspector general jobs that require Senate confirmation and to ensure that the posts are filled in agencies whose inspectors general do not have to go through the confirmation process. The Senate has a responsibility, on which it too has fallen short, to swiftly act on those nominees that are sent its way. The current morass does not serve the public well.