Government watchdogs would be able to sink in their teeth more deeply into agencies they are investigating, under two bills set for House votes Tuesday.
The measures would strengthen the powers of inspectors general — independent offices within agencies that perform audits and investigations — and of the Office of Special Counsel, a separate agency with a nearly government-wide reach. They are a reaction to complaints from investigators that agencies sometimes resist turning over information as required by current law.
Both are up for votes under a shortcut procedure usually reserved for those measures that will pass easily with bipartisan support.
One bill would give the OSC access to “any record or other information” of any agency under its jurisdiction and further would require “any employee” of the targeted agency to cooperate with such a request. As a safeguard, the OSC would have to keep information in confidence to the same degree as the agency it is investigating.
A report on the bill from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee noted that the OSC has been central in investigating and bringing to light problems with patient care at the Department of Veterans Affairs. OSC also investigates allegations of retaliation against whistleblowers, in many cases leading to discipline against management officials.
The report said that even though existing law requires cooperation with few exceptions, the OSC “has historically faced a range of obstacles from agencies, including non-responses, incomplete responses, untimely responses, and refusals to comply.” That includes invoking principles not addressed by current law such as attorney-client privilege, it said.
In comments on a similar Senate bill, the OSC said it sometimes “must engage in prolonged disputes over access to information or attempt to complete our investigation without the benefit of these important communications. This undermines the effectiveness of the whistleblower law and prolongs OSC investigations.”
Like the House measure, the Senate bill — which is pending a floor vote there — also strengthens several protections for whistleblowers.
The other bill before the House would give agency inspectors general subpoena authority over federal contractors and former federal employees. Certain restrictions would apply unless there is reason to believe a crime has been committed, although the Justice Department would have the ultimate decision whether to issue the requested subpoena.
The measure also would expand IG authority to compare records of one agency against those of another or against non-federal records, and would require public disclosure of any findings of misconduct against senior executives and other high-level officials.
Four-dozen inspectors general sent an unusual letter to Congress in 2014 complaining of ‘‘serious limitations on access to records that have recently impeded” their work, leading to a series of congressional hearings and the proposed legislation.
A similar bill also is pending a floor vote in the Senate.