Weekly Columns

When $8 million worth of solar panels failed to activate at the Little Rock Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC), it rightfully made headlines around the state. Not only were they incompatible with the local electricity grid, but they were knowingly built in a location that conflicted with another project. This ineffective use of taxpayer dollars cannot continue, nor can it be repeated elsewhere. 

After Congressman French Hill and I brought these problems to the attention of the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General (VAOIG), the failure at the VAMC in Little Rock was added to its national review of solar panel projects. 

This review underscores the importance of an Inspector General (IG). IGs are the first line of defense against government waste, fraud and abuse. 

Unfortunately, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has been without this top watchdog for more than a year, relying instead on an acting IG. 

This is a pattern that is all too familiar with this administration. VA is one of seven agencies with an acting IG and one of four including the Export-Import Bank, Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Interior, awaiting a nominee by the President for Senate confirmation. 

The Department of Interior has been without an IG for more than six years, nearly the entirety of the President’s time in office. In early June, leaders in the House of Representatives followed up on a 2014 report by the House Committee on Natural Resources that showed mismanagement by the acting IG. In a letter to the White House, members urged the President to fill that vacancy because of continuing problems and lack of independence in conducting accountability and oversight. 

There is bipartisan agreement that IG vacancies must be filled. It’s clear the process needs to be reformed so we can have qualified individuals leading efforts on accountability within federal agencies in a timely manner. That’s why I introduced an amendment to the budget earlier this year that would ensure these positions are filled. 

The Senate unanimously approved this amendment, paving the way for future legislation to address these vacancies, while strengthening and reforming the IG community. 

That process is underway. In an effort to improve the IG nomination practice, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs recently heard input from the Department of Justice (DOJ) IG and other watchdog organizations on ways to fix this tarnished system. 

Department of Justice IG Michael Horowitz told members that “a sustained absence of permanent leadership is not healthy for any office, particularly one entrusted with the important and challenging mission of an IG.”

Filling IG positions is not optional; however the timeline for the administration to nominate candidates doesn’t reflect this. For more than three decades, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) has worked to improve the IG system. POGO shows that this administration, on average, left IG positions vacant longer than any other since the organization starting collecting data. 

IGs play an important oversight role in helping Congress improve programs. They are necessary to provide the independence that these positions need, the agencies rely on and taxpayers deserve.