Inspectors general fear hiring freeze, talk transition miscommunications

The Trump administration says its hiring freeze will save American tax dollars, but the watchdogs considered to be the first line of defense against wasteful spending say they are worried about the chilling consequences.

Michael Horowitz, chairman of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that the IG community was concerned about the potential impacts of the freeze.

“As careful stewards of taxpayer money, we fully appreciate and respect the importance of prudently allocating federal resources,” said Horowitz, the Justice Department IG, during the Feb. 1 hearing. “However, given our track record of returning to the Treasury far more money than we are budgeted, we believe careful consideration should be given before impacting our ability to root out waste, fraud and abuse.”

In a Jan. 23 executive memo, Trump announced that the hiring freeze — which temporarily prohibits agencies from making new hires until [the Office of Management and Budget] develops a long-term plan within the next 90 days to reduce the size of the federal workforce through attrition — applies to all executive branch departments and agencies, including the Defense Department.

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Additional guidance released Jan. 31 notes that IGs are considered the agency head “for the purposes of determining which positions in the IG office are exempt … as well as for the purposes of the agency-head review of job offers in the IG office that either do not have a start date or have a designated start date beyond Feb. 22, 2017.”

Horowitz said the additional guidance was a good thing, but it doesn’t entirely solve the problem.

Horowitz said in fiscal 2015, federal agencies received or recovered more than $10 billion. Compared to the total OIG budget of about $2.7 billion in 2015, that comes out to a roughly $14 return on every dollar invested in inspectors general.

“That’s an incredible rate of return on investment, and I think that shows that freezing your departments, freezing all of you, is really going to harm taxpayers,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.).

Horowitz said IGs are looking forward to working with the incoming OMB director and Office of Personnel Management director, as well as Congress, during the appropriations process.

But working with the new administration and transition teams has already ruffled some feathers.

While committee members posed questions to the witness panel on oversight topics of their particular interest — such as pharmaceutical prices, and contracting and acquisition — a recurring question had to do with communications between Trump transition members and several inspectors general informing them that their positions were “being held over on a temporary basis.”

John Roth, Homeland Security Department IG, said he received a call Jan. 13 from the head of the DHS transition team, and was told he would be allowed to stay on through the change in administration, but that it would be temporary.

“He assumed I was already in the process of looking for another job,” Roth said. “I was surprised by the call given the tradition that inspectors general aren’t removed from office typically, or historically.”

Roth said the transition team head hadn’t indicated any concerns about his performance.

Roth said he called Horowitz, the chairman of CIGIE, to tell him about the message. By the following week, more than a half-dozen IGs had gotten similar messages, Horowitz said.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) produced a redacted Jan. 13 email that he said “demonstrates that these calls were not isolated incidents. This was a coordinated campaign to target inspectors general that someone in the Trump team planned, approved, organized and executed across multiple agencies. The problem is that we still do not know who.”

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said he was concerned the transition team could have done a better job communicating who would be staying or be asked to leave, but he pointed out that all he had gathered about the person who sent the email was that they were a junior-level person, who regardless of seniority, would not have had the power to remove IGs before Trump was sworn in.

“From an action standpoint it was business as usual, but technically there was a question of would you or wouldn’t you be held over, is that correct?” Issa said.

The IGs testifying at the hearing, which included the Labor Department and the Peace Corps, said they all showed up for work the Monday after the inauguration, and that 100 percent of the IGs permanently serving and those in acting IG roles returned to work that same day.

“I want to say we’re not going to let this sit here, I do want to know,” Issa said. “Unfortunately, the challenge I think we have, the transition team is now defunct and we’re really looking toward the future.”

Roth and Horowitz said they had started to meet with new leadership at their agencies, and Issa said he hoped “every IG would feel very free to contact every member of this committee should there be anything that would resemble interference or inability to do the job.”