When I worked on the Hill, securing information from a federal agency on about just anything was easy enough. Every now and then a Congressional request could hit a snag, however, produce they would eventually because the alternative — more Congressional scrutiny, especially under the public eye — is politically unpalatable for most federal agencies.
Sure, there is an element of fear that can underlie this process; however, the overwhelming majority of Congressional requests, no matter the form that they take, are done in the spirit of cooperation. The Founders made certain of it when designing our system of government. But there will always be tension. Tension is good. At least when you’re on the inside.
When you’re on the outside, things are not as simple as a phone call or e-mail. It can be a downright frustrating process securing information from an agency, especially if you own a business and contract with the feds. While prior government experience may help, usually, the sense of urgency by a federal official to respond to a request for information is no longer present. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) can work, but usually it takes too long to get an answer. And if the issue is political or controversial, more so.
I routinely advise potential clients, especially those involved in a government contract dispute or a potential whistleblower case, to be ready to exercise a whole lot of patience. Then there is the cost factor. A combination of deep pockets and a whole lot of patience is a good combination for administrative, legal, and public policy battles. This is especially true if the issue involves alleged fraud or abuse.
Throughout history Congress has developed many ways to conduct routine oversight and investigations. In addition to informal processes such as staff meetings or phone calls, as well as exchanges of letters, they have hearings, subpoena power, and floor debate. Congress can also order Government Accountability Office (GAO) audits or work with the many watchdogs peppered throughout the bureaucracy such as the inspector generals, ombudsmen or ombudsmen-like offices.
These oversight processes and devices are used for one thing, keeping tabs on the government to ensure that your tax dollars are being wisely spent as well as making sure that the laws are being faithfully executed. It should build confidence in the system, as well as improve governing over the long haul. It’s messy but it works.
A fulsome and transparent oversight process should encourage citizens and federal workers to speak up and report problems when they arise. And problems will always arise. It is human nature. That is why, in part, the Founders created a system of checks and balances. It is why we have separation of powers. But in order for all this to come together and work as robustly as possible, confidence in the watchers is extremely important.
Potential whistleblowers, or other folks with legitimate issues about a government program, need to know that if they take the risk and come forward, someone will listen, impartially, and act upon the information being brought to one of the watchdog agencies or the Congress.
Every now and then even the effectiveness of all these processes is seriously called into question. For example, just last week the Washington Post reported that officials with U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) hid information from the public by altering or omitting information from IG reports that could be politically damaging to the administration. The Washington Examiner‘s coverage of recent White House security breaches has also revealed potential issues with the watchdog system. On this latter point, I think there is a bigger story there. Time will tell.
Regrettably, these are not isolated events. Just about every day, you could find many examples of waste, fraud, and abuse going unchecked. In the meantime, folks on the outside, as well as federal employees on the inside, are increasingly losing confidence in watchdog system.
In recent years, I was involved with at least one case where despite clear and convincing evidence of personal conflict of interests and contracting irregularities, my client was not given the time of day by anyone in this town. At one point, we seriously thought that the IG process would afford our client some modicum of justice, however, we were sorely disappointed. With the client’s permission, here are some of the details of what we experienced.
However, when was even more frustrating was the lack of interest by Congressional overseers. Congressional Committee staff charged with reviewing the matter seemed more interested in currying favor with the agency’s high-level political Mandarins, as well as the mega-contractors, than getting to the heart of a potentially serious ethics breach as well as the safety of the American people. In this particular case, the Congressional Members and staff did not want to create political issues for the administration.
The thing was that in our case we had people in the agency wanted to talk, but were frightened. Why put your pension or job on the line if Congressional staff would not even offer immunity or press the issue with the agency on their behalf? They did not trust the IG, the Congress, or just about anyone else in this town to do right. The ultimate outcome in this case may be that a solid business will be destroyed because the IG and the Congress refused to act because politics, and money, has blinded folks. The underlying legal and policy issues in this case remain in this case and I believe that in the not too distant future, significant issues will arise that Congress will not be able to ignore.
There are reports from colleagues on the Hill that Congress wants to tackle and reform the IG and ombud process. With the exception of the Republican revolution in the mid-1990s, I think the last time that this happened was in the 1960s. There was a proposal at the time to have ombuds located on Capitol Hill, I believe one for every agency. The proposals went nowhere at the time but the idea, and many other like it, have surfaced every now and then.
Whatever they decide to do, let’s hope it focuses on empowering and streamlining the existing watchdog process. Taxpayers do not need or want more government, they just want a government that works. Congress needs to modernize the IG/ombud system as well as look inward and, possibly, take a close look at how the Committees are organized in order to make oversight a more fulsome exercise that builds confidence in the system.