This month, the U.S. Senate voted by unanimous consent to pass the Inspector General Empowerment Act of 2016, which originated in the House of Representatives and was sponsored by Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA).  The bill now heads to the President’s desk, where it should be signed into law.

The IG Empowerment Act is an important step in strengthening the power and independence of the official “watchdogs” of the administrative state.  The main thrust of the legislation is to reinforce the power of IGs to access any agency records necessary for their oversight efforts.  This is seen as necessary to bypass the roadblocks to accessing records set up by many agencies—including the Department of Justice, Peace Corps, Department of Commerce, Treasury, and EPA—over the past six years.  The Obama Administration’s efforts to prevent IGs from carrying out their statutory duty to combat waste and fraud found their apogee in a July 2015 memorandum circulated by DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel, which was strongly condemned by the IG community.  That legal opinion is now superseded by statute.

The recently passed bill also modifies the operation and reporting obligations of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency—or CIGIE—the independent entity within the government composed of all the IGs.  Additionally, the IG Empowerment Act clarifies when agencies and whistleblowers are authorized to disclosure sensitive information to their IG.

According to a recent congressional report, the obstructions faced by IGs, and the more than 15,000 recommendations that have been unimplemented by their agencies, have cost taxpayers $87 billion in lost savings.  While the IG Empowerment Act will likely improve the effectiveness and integrity of the Executive Branch, and save taxpayers a great deal of money, there is still room for improvement.  For example, the new bill fails to address the lack of subpoena power needed to compel testimony from federal employees and contractors, especially in instances where an agency refuses to cooperate with an IG’s ongoing investigation.

Congress should also take further steps to resolve the perineal problem of IG vacancies.  While the new bill requires the Comptroller General, who leads the Government Accountability Office, to examine the effect of these long-vacant posts, additional pressure could be placed on the White House to nominate new IGs and the Senate to confirm them.  For example, the Department of Commerce just received a new IG, and President Obama also announced the nomination of the first-ever IG for the National Security Agency, but too many empty spots remain.  According to CIGIE, nine presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed IG positions are empty.  The Project on Government Oversight calculates that the Department of Interior IG position has been vacant for over 2,800 days.  This is unacceptable.

Organizations like Cause of Action Institute remain committed to public oversight, but their tools are limited.  IGs are in a unique position to work with non-governmental actors and Congress alike to hold the Executive Branch accountable.  Efforts to strengthen the position and authority of IGs should therefore be seen as bolstering open and transparent government.  The IG Empowerment Act is one such effort.  In the its new session under President Trump, Congress ought to consider additional ones.