Senate panel approves bill to make IGs stronger, more transparent

A bill designed to give inspectors general more independence from agencies achieved a milestone Wednesday, when it sailed through the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The Inspector General Empowerment Act would also require greater communication between IGs and agency leaders, Congress and the public.

“We need IGs to bring their ‘A’ game every day,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the committee’s ranking member. “I think this legislation will help them do that.” The bill, sponsored by the committee chairman, Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), and Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Chuck Grassley (R- Iowa), closely resembles one that failed to pass Congress last year.

Among the measures, it would give IGs the authority to subpoena federal contractors and former federal employees, within certain limits. For example, the IG would need approval from a three-person panel of other inspectors general. If the witnesses did not comply, an inspector general could take them to court.

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“Many of these provisions are authorities the IG community has been seeking for a long, long time,” said McCaskill.

She said the bill would improve the checks on inspectors general themselves. It would impose timeframes and new transparency requirements on the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, which investigates allegations of misconduct by IGs.

Making audits more transparent

Whenever IGs make recommendations for changes, even at the local level, they would have to submit their reports to the head of their agencies and the appropriate congressional committees. In addition, IGs would have to post reports online no more than three days after agency heads receive them.

The transparency measures, brought as amendments by Johnson and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) are in response to an incident at a Veterans Affairs medical center in their state that has served as an embarrassment to Baldwin.

The VA inspector general investigated the Tomah, Wisconsin, hospital following claims that a doctor was excessively prescribing painkillers to patients. It closed the investigation without releasing the report to VA Secretary Bob McDonald, Congress or the public. The IG later gave Baldwin a copy. It also published the report in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The Government Accountability Office would also study IG vacancies. Some positions have been open for years, which Carper described as “disheartening.” Some IGs require Senate confirmation but others may be appointed by their agency heads. Carper suggested he would spearhead a letter to the White House complaining about the remaining vacancies.

Improper payments, sick leave for veterans among other bills approved by committee

In addition to the IG Empowerment Act, the committee approved eight bipartisan bills, several of which run the gamut of federal management and workforce issues, from sick leave to car repairs. Here is a brief summary:

  • The Federal Improper Payments Coordination Act responds to a growth in improper federal payments after a brief period of decline. Last year, improper payments reached $124 billion, much of that due to Medicare, Carper noted.
  • The Wounded Warriors Federal Leave Act of 2015, disabled veterans would get 104 hours of sick leave during their first year in a federal job. New employees now earn four hours of sick leave each pay period, which is not enough for many veterans who have persistent medical needs because of their war injuries, according to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.)
  • The Federal Vehicle Repair Costs Savings Act, cosponsored by freshmen senators Gary Peters (D-Mich.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.), aims to save money on repairs to federal vehicles through the use of remanufactured auto parts. It encourages, but does not require, agencies to consider remanufactured engines, transmissions and other parts as long as it is safe and cost effective.
  • The Gold Star Fathers Act would make it easier for fathers of service members who have died or been severely wounded to get federal jobs. Currently, only mothers receive the 10-point hiring preference. The bill passed the Senate last year but got stuck in the House. It retains the condition that the parent be either single or separated from their spouse to qualify for the preference.
  • The Department of Homeland Security Interoperable Communications Act would require DHS to spell out a strategy for removing technical barriers that prevent its components from communicating in emergencies and routine business. The House approved the bill last month.
  • The Human Trafficking Detection Act emphasizes training for DHS employees, including airport security officers, customs agents and the border patrol. The training would include methods for detecting human trafficking and approaching victims. The House approved the measure, sponsored by Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), in January.
  • The Presidential Library Donations Act would shine light on the raising of money for presidential libraries. Donors who give more that $200 would have to report it to the National Archives.
  • The RESPONSE Act of 2015 would require FEMA to assemble a panel to make recommendations on how emergency personnel should respond to accidents involving hazardous material.

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