Q&A: Inspector General Act

Q: Why did Congress write the Inspector General Act of 1978?

A: Enacted 40 years ago, the federal law established an independent arm within federal agencies to conduct audits and investigations to prevent and detect fraud and abuse. The inspectors general are tasked with a mission to promote “economy, efficiency and effectiveness” and to inform Congress about problems in the administration of government programs and services. The size and scope of the executive branch spans across a sprawling federal bureaucracy that administers the lion’s share of the federal government’s $4 trillion budget. That’s an awful lot of tax dollars to account for, particularly since wrongdoers belly-up to the federal trough any chance they get. That’s why our system of checks and balances is so vital. The size of the executive branch is far bigger than the legislative branch. A few years ago, one study estimated the executive branch in one way or another employs nine million people. Congress has 535 members. Even if I had eyes in the back of my head, I wouldn’t be able to scrutinize every nook and cranny of the federal bureaucracy single-handedly. The 1978 law added a key tool to help Congress perform oversight duties of the executive branch, a job the Supreme Court has recognized is fundamental to our system of checks and balances. The Inspector General Act serves as an arsenal for accountability within the executive branch. Specifically, inspectors general have resources and authorities designed to keep federal agencies honest and on their toes, including criminal investigators, auditors and forensics capabilities. The Offices of Inspectors General (IG) are designed to stay immune from the bureaucratic hierarchy and partisan influence. And yet, too frequently, federal agencies have an allergic reaction to independent review and stymie efforts to provide information and access to agency records. To prevent embarrassing or fraudulent information from seeing the light of day, an agency under investigation will embark on a bewildering effort to deny records, resulting in wasteful delays to undermine the IG. So, Congress wrote and passed a new law to say we meant what we said the first time: IGs are entitled to “all records” to conduct their work. As an outspoken supporter for whistleblowers, I’ve also worked to empower the brave souls who come forward to report wrongdoing so that they understand their rights. Congress also requires each IG to have a “whistleblower ombudsman” who works on their behalf to make sure they understand laws that protect them from retaliation for reporting waste, fraud and abuse. Just this summer, the president signed into law new measures that put even more teeth into the ombudsman responsibilities to improve protection programs for whistleblowers across the federal government. With national security at stake and $4 trillion flowing from federal coffers, we can’t afford to mute the voices of those who witness misconduct while working in the trenches of the federal bureaucracy. Without a doubt, I will keep turning up the volume on government accountability.

Q: What do you know about a $10,000 toilet seat lid at the Air Force?

A: American humorist Mark Twain once wrote “truth is stranger than fiction.” Unfortunately, the bookkeeping mess at the Department of Defense (DoD) is no laughing matter. After decades of relentless oversight work that started with an over-priced $640 toilet seat, I’ve continued to flush out tales of cost-overruns and spare parts rip-offs riddling the DoD. Through six presidencies and a dozen Secretaries of Defense, wasteful spending runs rampant at the Pentagon. Every defense dollar lost to waste, fraud and abuse weakens military readiness. That’s why I’ve worked to secure curbs on government charge cards by DoD employees. I’ve worked with internal auditors to clean up sloppy bookkeeping. I’ve worked to put the squeeze on overpriced spare parts, only to find contractors inflate overhead and management fees. That means taxpayers are stuck with the same overpriced tab. And now, 30 years after the overpriced toilet seat took flight, I’ve discovered that sticker shock for toilet parts in the sky has gained higher altitude. Instead of spending $640 for a toilet seat, the Air Force recently listed $10,000 for a toilet seat lid. Talk about a lavish lavatory that needs to put a lid on spending. Skyway robbery comes to mind. The Air Force tells the media it’s no longer spending $10,000 for a toilet seat lid. I’ve asked the DoD Inspector General to confirm when the Air Force stopped buying them and how many were purchased at that price. Flushing out wasteful spending at the Pentagon continues to reveal systemic fiscal mismanagement that flushes precious tax dollars down the drain. The ability to plunge waste from the Pentagon’s spending pipeline is clogged up by antiquated accounting systems and disrespect for taxpayer money.

In 1990, Congress passed the Chief Financial Officer Act requiring all departments to present a financial statement to an inspector general. The Pentagon is the only federal agency that has failed to comply. The DoD Comptroller and Chief Financial Officer says a clean audit for the Pentagon is at least a decade away. The broken data collection system prevents the Pentagon from being audit-ready. And yet, tens of millions of dollars are squandered for incomplete audits and tens of billions of dollars are spent every year to fix the accounting system. I’m working with other lawmakers on the Senate Budget Committee to have the Government Accountability Office investigate why billions and billions have been spent to modernize DoD accounting systems in the last quarter century with nothing to show for it. Why is the Pentagon able to acquire the most advanced military systems in the world, but fails to install a world class accounting system that’s able to win a war on wasteful spending? With so much at stake, I’m not giving up on my mission to fix fiscal accountability at the Pentagon and wipe out the culture of indifference toward the American people’s money.