Politics

Reid Blocks Measure Giving Federal Watchdogs More Muscle

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Senate Minority Leader [crscore]Harry Reid[/crscore] blocked a bipartisan bill Tuesday intended to strengthen the ability of inspectors general to root out billions of dollars in waste, fraud and abuse in federal departments and agencies.

Reid, a Nevada Democrat, refused to explain to his Senate colleagues or congressional reporters why he shot down the Inspector General Empowerment Act of 2015. The measure was approved unanimously earlier this year by the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

Reid was able to block the bill because it was brought up under the unanimous consent process that allows passage on voice votes of those in the Senate chamber. All that is required to block a bill in the process is one objection.

“Other senators are concerned about it, and I lead the objection on my behalf,” Reid said on the Senate floor as fellow senators, including one of the bill’s Democratic co-sponsors, Sen. [crscore]Claire McCaskill[/crscore] of Missouri, listened in something like shock. 

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the Inspector General Empowerment Act‘s sponsor, demanded to know why senators don’t have the “guts” to object publicly.

“I’m it,” Reid said, without naming others or naming any reasons for objecting.

“There is no universe that the IG Act should mean anything less than what it says,” McCaskill, a former state auditor, said after Reid registered his objection.

Congress granted presidentially appointed IGs full rein to access “all” records in the 1978 Inspector General Act that created the watchdogs in 72 cabinet level departments, regulatory commissions and independent agencies.

But in 2010, officials at federal agencies — most notably the Department of Justice, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Peace Corps and Department of Commerce — began denying or delaying access to their own watchdogs.

The Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel issued a lengthy opinion in July, claiming agencies can deny wiretap records, grand jury testimony and other information inspectors general use routinely to conduct investigations.

The bill, which has seven Republican sponsors and five Democratic sponsors, reiterates that Congress intends for the IGs to have unfettered access to all documents they believe are necessary to do their work.

“I cannot imagine anything controversial about wanting inspectors generals to have access to  the people and the documents they need to do their jobs,” said Sen. [crscore]Ron Johnson[/crscore]. “Americans deserve an accountable, transparent and effective government, and this is one tangible thing that we can do to help achieve that common goal.”

Johnson, a co-sponsor of the bill, is chairman of the homeland security panel.

Grassley said one DOJ lawyer can’t interpret a law to contradict Congress’ intent and wording.

“If the agencies can keep IGs in the dark, then this Congress will be kept in the dark as well,” Grassley said.

“Every day that goes by without fixing the Office of Legal Counsel opinion is another day that watchdogs across government can be stonewalled,” Grassley said

The proposed bill also allows IGs to compel testimony from former federal employees, something current law doesn’t allow.

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