Senate lawmakers are exploring whether the authorities of the Commerce Department inspector general are sufficient to do the job.
Senators questioned Peg Gustafson, the nominee, about how she would combat the resistance that has plagued the office and what tools she would need to do so
“If there was ever a department of government that needs an inspector general and needs it now, it’s commerce,” said Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) during the May 10 hearing. “There have been a string of failures in that position and the stability and continuity that Peg would provide that office is essential at the moment.”
Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) detailed two recent instances where pushback from the International Trade Administration caused two Commerce audits to be canceled. He said they justified the pushback using a “highly dubious interpretation” of a Justice Department ruling that stated that an IG is not entitled to all an agency’s data. Blunt asked Gustafson how she would handle such a situation.
“First and foremost, the oversight entity — be it the auditor or the IG — has to be completely independent,” Gustafson said to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. “And what I’ve learned is that, if there are issues with that, and if there’s interference, that really is a direct threat upon the independence of that entity and has to be dealt with swiftly and quite strongly. When that happens, it simply needs to be elevated, brought to the stakeholders, brought to Congress’ attention… and people’s feet need to be held to the fire to make sure that we get the access.”
Gustafson also expressed a willingness to fight for new authorities, such as testimonial subpoena. Currently, IGs cannot subpoena former agency employees, agency contractors or employees of contractors for testimony. A bill that would grant these authorities has been introduced into both houses of Congress every year since 2009. Neither of the current incarnations have been acted on since being reported by committee in the first half of 2015.
“In all candor, I think it’s offensive to think that for some reason the Inspector General community can’t handle testimonial subpoena authority,” she said in response to a question from McCaskill. “I think it’s an important tool, and I guess I never really understood why there’s seems to be some feeling out there that Inspectors General would run amok if given that authority.”
Blunt also inquired about Gustafson’s attitudes towards cybersecurity, and whether or not she would make it a top priority.
“I kind of think of it as something that will probably always be there, and it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t deserve attention, what it means is that it kind of deserves constant attention — not overwhelming — but constant attention,” she said. “And on behalf of the overseers, it would not be surprising for that to be a longstanding management challenge just because of the very nature of the technology, which is changing as I speak.”
Before being nominated for Commerce IG, Gustafson spent more than six years as IG at the U.S. Small Business Administration. Before that, while serving as General Counsel to McCaskill, Gustafson helped write the Inspector General Reform Act of 2008.
In addition, Gustafson has served two terms as chairwoman of the Legislation Committee of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.
Daisy Thornton is Federal News Network’s digital managing editor. In addition to her editing responsibilities, she covers federal management, workforce and technology issues. She is also the commentary editor; email her your letters to the editor and pitches for contributed bylines.