In 1981, a newly elected president who had promised to reduce government spending by rooting out "waste, fraud and abuse" did something unexpected: He fired the government officials who were in charge of finding and eliminating waste, fraud and abuse.
The officials were the inspectors general in various government departments, a new position created by legislation enacted in 1978. Eventually, about half the IGs who were dismissed by President Ronald Reagan were rehired, but the episode caused such a political uproar that since then these internal watchdogs have generally been off-limits to the usual partisan turnover when control of the executive branch changes.
That may still be the case under President Bush, but recently two inspectors general were quietly forced out of their jobs, causing a ripple of anxiety within the IG community.
They were both given the bad news on Valentine's Day. According to Luise S. Jordan, the IG at the Corporation for National and Community Service since 1994, she was summoned to a meeting with Ed Moy, an associate director in the presidential personnel office.
"I was told I had done a good job. I was complimented on the achievements of my office, but the second paragraph, after all these compliments and making it clear this was not a dismissal for cause, was that the corporation had decided to get a new IG," Jordan recalled.
The same day, Roberta L. Gross, the IG at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration since 1995, was given a similar message by NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe.
"He said the White House was in the process of selecting somebody else" for the IG job, Gross said. "He said it was time to move on."
Replacements for Jordan and Gross were named quickly, indicating that the process of replacing them was well underway before the Valentine's Day meetings.
Both Jordan and Gross officially "resigned." But their departures were far from voluntary, and they illustrated the unusual position that the IGs occupy within the federal bureaucracy.
IGs are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, just as other senior political appointees are. They serve at the pleasure of the president and can only be removed by the president. But since the Reagan purge more than 20 years ago, the IGs have been viewed as being in a special category of their own.
"From then on, presidents have been loath to fire them," said Paul C. Light, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution. "There is no tradition of firing an IG. Generally, it is up to the IG to determine when he or she is going to leave."
Light said most of the concern among IGs centers on Gross's departure from NASA, in part because the agency's head, O'Keefe, is considered such an important player within the Bush administration. O'Keefe was deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, where he was deeply involved in developing the administration's management agenda, before he took over the space agency in December, only about two months before Gross was forced out.
IGs appointed by President Bill Clinton "have been nervous for some months that sooner or later the Bush administration would try to replace them," Light said. "I think they're looking at the NASA case as a pretty serious signal."
Gross and O'Keefe view the relationship between an agency head and the internal IG in starkly different terms that go to the heart of the debate over the IG's independence.
In an interview, Gross said that if an IG's "history does not involve misconduct, ethical concerns, violations of the law, if [a dismissal] is not for cause, it's really not appropriate. Then it becomes politics, and you're like any other political appointee. That's not what the statute contemplated."
She said she could have fought to stay in the job, but decided that would only create "turmoil" for the IG staff she was leaving behind.
White House spokeswoman Anne Womack said there is no administration policy to replace the holdover IGs. "There was a review of each of the agencies to find out how we could make them more effective, and in some cases it was determined that we should consider new inspectors general," she said.
O'Keefe also said there is no administration mandate to replace holdover IGs, but that each agency head had a responsibility to evaluate "all senior management positions, including the IG."
Stressing that Gross's work had been "distinguished," he said the decision to replace her was "a judgment call" based largely on the length of time she had been in the job.
"Seven years argues for a change," O'Keefe said.
Light said that "only in Washington" would seven years' experience "be seen as a negative" for a senior executive.
"Seven years is in many cases when you really get to know the agency," he said. "You're just hitting your stride at seven years."
"I think O'Keefe is underestimating the symbolic message this will send to his colleagues," Light added. "I think the fact that Sean [O'Keefe] moved so quickly to remove Roberta Gross sends a message to other senior administration officials that they ought to take a look at whether they want their IGs to stay. I think Sean underestimates his stature within the administration. . . . I think there is a big symbolic issue here."