The Inspectors General Problem
Two and a half years after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency after Watergate, the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel under Jimmy Carter issued a memorandum opinion “concerning the constitutionality of H.R. 2819, which would establish an Office of Inspector General.” This little-known office within the Justice Department believed that the bill would “make Inspectors General subject to divided and possibly inconsistent obligations to the executive and legislative branches, violate the doctrine of separation of powers and are constitutionally invalid.” In 1978, the Inspector General Act passed by a vote of 388-6 in the House, by unanimous consent in the Senate, and was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter, who described it as “perhaps the most important new tools in the fight against fraud.”
Fast forward 42 years and questions surrounding the authority and independence of inspectors general is once again coming to a head.
In the span of a week, President Trump removed two inspectors general. First he fired Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community’s inspector general who came to prominence for his role in notifying Congress of a whistleblower’s complaint related to funding to Ukraine, and then he removed acting inspector general Glenn Fine, who had been selected as head of the coronavirus spending oversight board to oversee the $2.2 trillion in the coronavirus rescue package passed by Congress. He also got into a back-and-forth during one of his daily briefings over the HHS inspector general’s report that “chronicled long waits for coronavirus test results and supply shortages at hospitals across the country,” denying the report and asking “could politics be entered into that?”
Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley sent the president a bipartisan letter about Atkinson’s removal co-signed by seven other senators, correctly stating that “current law requires that you inform the Senate and House Intelligence Committees in writing of the reasons for your removal of the IC IG, at least 30 days prior to that removal” and asking him to “provide more detailed reasoning for the removal of Inspector General Atkinson [and] how the appointment of an acting official prior to the end of the 30 day notice period comports with statutory requirements.”