IGs given power to subpoena former feds, contractors under new bill

Inspectors general would be able to subpoena former federal employees and federal contractors under one of several bills approved Tuesday by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

By voice vote, the panel sent the Inspector General Reform Act of 2015 to the full House for consideration. The bill would give inspectors general the power to subpoena former federal employees and contractors to testify in cases of fraud or waste of more than $100,000, or...

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Inspectors general would be able to subpoena former federal employees and federal contractors under one of several bills approved Tuesday by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

By voice vote, the panel sent the Inspector General Reform Act of 2015 to the full House for consideration. The bill would give inspectors general the power to subpoena former federal employees and contractors to testify in cases of fraud or waste of more than $100,000, or when criminal activity is suspected.

Several inspectors general have complained that they cannot compel testimony from federal employees who choose to retire rather than face internal punishment. The subject came up during a recent congressional hearing that focused on an EPA employee accused of sexually harrassing more than a dozen women without punishment. Because he retired, the inspector general could not interview him.

The legislation offers what Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee’s top Democrat, described as a careful balance between giving inspectors general adequate powers to complete investigations of cases in which criminal activity, major fraud  or waste is suspected, while ensuring that individual IGs do not abuse that power.

“I believe most IGs would act responsibly,” he said. “It is important that we issue safeguards, however, to protect against the possibility of an IG abusing unilateral power to issue subpoenas.”

Inspectors general would need approval from a panel of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency. In addition, the attorney general would have 10 days to block the IG’s request if it interfered with an ongoing investigation. At the EPA, acting Deputy Administrator Stanley Meiburg had cited concurrent Justice Department investigations as one reason why the agency had hesitated in the past to move quickly on inspector-general requests.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved similar, although not identical, legislation in March. Inspectors general had lobbied Congress last summer for both greater independence from agencies and better access to agency information.

The House panel approved two other bipartisan bills that would impact aspects of agency budgeting and cybersecurity.

Supporters said the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act of 2015 would accelerate the Obama administration’s initiative to get agencies to make decisions based on data and evidence. Originally proposed by former Budget Committee chairs Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the bill would create a short-term, bipartisan commission to find ways to help agencies weave data into their program designs. Over 15 months, the commission would take an inventory of government’s data and recommend setting up a clearinghouse or another way to share that data, taking into account security and privacy concerns.

The Obama administration repeatedly has directed agencies to use metrics and other data to justify their annual budget requests.

The Oversight Committee also approved the Safe and Secure Federal Websites Act of 2015, which targets recent federal websites, like HealthCare.gov, that either store or ask users for their personally identifiable information, such as Social Security numbers or addresses. If the bill becomes law, then agency chief information officers would have to certify to Congress that the websites were fully functional and secure before launch. The measure would not apply to contractors’ websites, however. In recent memory, some of the broadest security breaches involving federal employees’ personal information have occurred on sites hosted by contractors rather than agencies.

The committee broke out in heated partisan debate over a fourth bill involving public notice of proposed regulations. Republicans said the legislation would help businesses know in advance the costs that they may have to pay for impending regulations. Democrats accused Republicans of trying to stifle rulemaking. The panel approved the bill along party lines.

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