Senate Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid refuses to say why for months he has blocked a bipartisan bill designed to ensure inspectors general access all of the official documents they need to fight waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government.
Three months ago, the Nevada senator blocked an attempt to pass Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley’s IG Empowerment Act with unanimous consent, which would make it crystal clear that the 1978 Inspector General Act gives presidentially appointed IGs authority to access all agency records for investigations and audits.
Reid still refuses to change his position or explain his objections. A spokesman for Reid did not respond to the Daily Caller News Foundation’s requests for an explanation of Reid’s opposition to the bill. The measure is co-sponsored by Democratic senators Tammy Baldwin and Claire McCaskill.
“I cannot imagine anything controversial about wanting inspectors general to have access to the people and documents they need to do their jobs for the American people,” Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, another co-sponsor of the bill and chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, told TheDCNF.
“Americans deserve a transparent and accountable government, and, this being Sunshine Week, it is particularly concerning that Minority Leader Reid refuses to disclose why these bipartisan, commonsense reforms are being blocked,” Johnson said.
The FBI began denying or delaying records sought in 2010 by the Department of Justice IG after the watchdog published several reports that were highly critical of the bureau. The FBI’s refusals contradicted the 1978 law granting IGs access to “all” agency records, but other agencies quickly followed the bureau’s lead.
The Peace Corps, for example, denied its IG access to data on sexual assaults against Peace Corps members serving abroad, and Environmental Protection Agency officials claimed attorney-client privilege to block the IG from obtaining sensitive records.
Forty-seven inspectors general wrote to members of Congress in August 2014, asking them to protect their independence and access.
Adding to the tension, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) concluded in July 2015 the FBI can withhold wiretapping, surveillance and credit records from its IG.
Grassley introduced the IG Empowerment Act to serve as a final clarification that Congress sides with watchdog access and accountable government over agencies.
“Congress established inspectors general to be watchdogs on federal agencies, to ensure the government is serving the American people in a fair, upstanding and efficient manner,” Grassley told TheDCNF. “Congress gave these watchdogs authority to review all agency records to effectively do their job. Leave it, though, to the bureaucracy to twist the meaning of the simple three-letter word: all. Denying access to all records – access that Congress created – prevents IGs from fully protecting the American people from fraud, waste and misconduct in government.”
Reid shot down this seemingly uncontroversial bill on behalf of himself and other members, but refused to say why. Senate rules in a unanimous consent procedure require opposing members to identify themselves and state their reasons.
“Other senators are concerned about it, and I lead the objection on my behalf,” Reid said on the Senate floor in December. But he did not identify those senators or describe their concerns.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, hasn’t brought the measure back to the floor in the months since Reid’s blocking manuever. A McConnell spokesman said no vote is scheduled before the current session draws to a close.
Until Congress acts, agencies will continue to thwart transparency and accountability, Elizabeth Hempowicz, public policy director for the Project on Government Oversight, told TheDCNF.
“This bill is still extremely important, I would say even more important now than it was when it was first introduced,” Hempowicz said. “Every day that goes by without action from Congress to undo the OLC opinion from last July stating that DOJ IG does not have unfettered access to all of the agency’s documents bolsters that opinion and undermines IGs across the government. Until Congress passes the bill, that memo can be and has been used to block oversight.”