- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 7, 2009

OPINION/ANALYSIS:

It was Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 1981, and President Ronald Reagan’s first day in office. Surprisingly, one of his first official acts was to notify Congress of his intention to fire all of his inspectors general (IGs), stating that it was essential for him to have the “fullest confidence” in the ability and integrity of each inspector general.

James S. Brady, the White House press secretary, said at the time that Mr. Reagan was looking for people who were “meaner than a junkyard dog” when it came to ferreting out waste and mismanagement in the federal government.

Two months later, after some criticism from the Democratic-controlled Congress, Mr. Reagan rehired six of the 15 originally fired IGs. Yet despite this criticism, few would deny that his actions succeeded in sending a clear message to the entrenched federal bureaucracy that there was a new administration in town with a different and more aggressive approach to fraud, waste and abuse.

Today, President Obama has called for an even more dramatic attack on fraud, waste and abuse. In words as well as deeds, his first few months are replete with evidence of the arrival of a “new sheriff in town” set on changing the fundamental way Washington does business.

His repeated initiatives to cut waste, abolish failed programs and expose fraud in federal contracting send a strong signal that more dramatic changes are coming for the little-known but extremely powerful IG community - changes that will have equally dramatic consequences for the thousands of corporations contracting with the federal government.

Mr. Obama started his reform campaign almost as early as Mr. Reagan did: with his first Cabinet meeting, where he publicly tasked his agency heads to cut unnecessary programs. Since then, among other initiatives, Mr. Obama has:

• Signed an Executive Order reforming government contracting;

• Ordered a line-by-line review of the budget to find wasteful programs;

• Appointed a highly acclaimed IG to coordinate and oversee the new Recovery Act;

• Launched a Web site to track spending from the Recovery Act;

• Announced a cut of $17 billion from his budget;

• Called on rank-and-file federal employees as well as private citizens to submit suggestions on how to make federal operations more efficient and less costly.

Historically, the IGs have been one of the strongest tools for any administration in exposing problems with programs and processes. Not surprisingly, Mr. Obama reached out to one of the most aggressive and well-respected members of the IG community, Interior Department IG Earl Devaney, to head the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board.

The Inspector General Act of 1978 created independent units within a few federal agencies to conduct audits and investigations of agency activities to ensure that the agencies are effective, efficient and accountable. The law required the IGs to report not only to their respective agency heads but also to the appropriate committees of Congress.

From only 15 IGs in 1978, the IG community now encompasses more than 67 departments, agencies and programs, placing it in a uniquely powerful position - straddling both the executive and congressional branches - to carry out Mr. Obama’s plan to reform the way government works.

Clearly, Mr. Obama knows who the IGs are and how important a role they can serve in enforcing fiscal discipline. Could he be planning to take a page from the Gipper’s playbook and dramatically replace most if not all of the remaining IGs?

There is nothing legally to prevent him from doing so. He merely needs to give Congress 30 days’ notice before removing an IG. It is worth observing that one of the main sticking points over the passage of the 2008 IG Reform Act was this very issue, with the Senate balking until a provision eliminating the president’s prerogative was removed from the House version of the bill.

However, few people are suggesting a Reagan-like wholesale firing of the IGs. Even though the IG community has recently been rocked with a number of scandals and is generally viewed both on and off the Hill as more lap dog than guard dog, Mr. Obama will not have to be as dramatic as Mr. Reagan was to accomplish his objectives.

Through attrition, both natural and otherwise, Mr. Obama has the greatest number of IG vacancies of any president since Mr. Reagan to fill. There are currently 10 vacancies in some of the largest and most important government departments, such as Defense, CIA, Education, NASA, and State, to name a few.

Mr. Obama’s choice of Mr. Devaney is an indication of the quality of the nominees the president will be seeking in filling these important slots. Especially in light of the recent tepid reaction in the press and in Congress to Mr. Obama’s first attempt to cut the budget, one can only expect that he will pick 10 of the meanest junkyard dogs he can find to follow his directions to change the way business is carried out in Washington.

• John F. Sopko is a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP in Washington, D.C., and the co-leader of the firm’s congressional investigations practice. He previously spent more than 20 years on Capitol Hill, where he worked with inspectors general on congressional oversight matters.

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