WASHINGTON — Language offered by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) that would prohibit the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies from denying their watchdogs access to documents they need to root out fraud, waste and abuse passed the Senate Thursday.
The amendments were to the combined appropriations bill to fund transportation, housing programs, military construction and veterans affairs. They prohibit the VA and the departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development from using money appropriated in the bill to deny their inspectors general access to agency documents – unless a provision of law expressly refers to the inspector general and expressly limits the inspector general’s right of access. The inspectors general are required to report to Congress any failures to comply with these requirements.
Johnson’s amendments were accepted by unanimous consent on Wednesday and added to the bill. He said this afterward:
“We need to give inspectors general the tools they need to make our government more efficient and effective for the American people. I am pleased that the Senate has included language ensuring the VA and the departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development cannot block inspector general oversight by shielding documents from scrutiny. I will continue to work with Sen. Grassley and the bipartisan group of now 18 cosponsors of the IG Empowerment Act to ensure that this same commonsense clarification of congressional intent is applied to every agency — not just for this fiscal year, but permanently."
Sen. Grassley said, “Congress was clear in 1978, when it created the Inspector General Act, and it is clear again today that government watchdogs should have access to all agency records to conduct oversight. Chairman Johnson’s amendments, though limited to only a few agencies, are an important step toward reinforcing congressional intent and protecting IGs’ access to government records. These protections should apply across the federal government, and we’ll continue working to that end through similar appropriations bills and by passing the Inspector General Empowerment Act, which, ironically, is being held up by the same Democrat senators who agreed to the protections today.”
This language responds to a July 2015 opinion from the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, which requires the Department of Justice Inspector General to obtain agency permission to access certain documents. That opinion reversed the presumption Congress established in the Inspector General Act that inspectors general should have unfettered access to any information they deem necessary for effective oversight. The opinion was broad enough for other agencies to rely on it to deny their inspectors general access to documents, and some agencies have already done so.
The Inspector General Empowerment Act of 2015, S.579, a bill authored by Chuck Grassley and cosponsored by Ron Johnson and a bipartisan group of 18 other senators, includes modified language that would address the July Office of Legal Counsel opinion, clarifying congressional intent through permanent law that "all really does mean "all." That bill is being blocked on the Senate floor.