By Donald K. Sherman
March 24, 2020

President Donald Trump’s failure to appoint permanent watchdogs at federal agencies has created a significant void in many of the departments critical to the administration’s fight against coronavirus and its dramatic effects on our way of life. The President has left numerous offices of inspectors general (IG) across the government without permanent, Senate-confirmed leadership including four positions that have been vacant for his entire administration. As the IG community has acknowledged, permanent leadership in IG offices is “important for stability and long-term success.” Similarly, a bipartisan group of Senators urged President Trump “to take swift action” to address these vacancies because they impede the ability of IG offices to identify public safety risks and protect whistleblowers. 

The President’s hostility to oversight, ethics and accountability is well documented at this point, but IG vacancies are particularly problematic in times of crisis. These risks are even more obvious when we examine the critical role that several agencies without a competent, permanent, and independent inspector general – including the Department of Defense, the Department of Education and the Department of the Treasury – have in the government’s coronavirus response. These IG offices are essential to preventing waste, fraud and abuse as Congress and the Trump administration allocate billions in taxpayer funds to fight coronavirus. While the White House has pledged that there will be an independent Inspector General to oversee funds over the stimulus bill now under consideration by the Senate very similar to the the Special Inspector General for the Office of the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP), the President’s practice of leaving other Senate confirmed IG positions vacant does not instill confidence.

Department of the Treasury

Role in Coronavirus Response:

The Department of the Treasury has been at the forefront of the Trump administration’s response to the spread of coronavirus and its effects on the economy. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was added to the President’s coronavirus task force in late February, and was the administration’s chief negotiator with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on a coronavirus response bill. Mnuchin said that his agency would advance funds to businesses so they can meet paid sick-leave requirements under the new House bill to combat the coronavirus. According to a Department statement, “The bill provides a dollar for dollar reimbursement for coronavirus related sick leave costs. To protect businesses concerned about cash flow, the Treasury will use its regulatory authority to advance funds to employers in a number of ways.” 

Secretary Mnuchin also stated that he would request that Congress reinstate Treasury and other agencies with “powers that were used during the 2008 financial crisis to support the economy” as the coronavirus threatens to send America into recession. The Treasury Department is leading the administration’s economic relief effort as it now considers a bailout of the airline and cruise industries damaged by coronavirus. This week, Congress is expected to vote on a bill that would give the Treasury Department responsibility for implementing a $500 billion loan program. Mnuchin is also the chief negotiator with Senate leadership on that bill.

Inspector General Vacancy: 8 months and counting …

The Treasury Department OIG is tasked with keeping both the Secretary and Congress “fully and currently informed” about problems relating to the administration of Treasury operations as well as necessary corrective action. OIG’s role is critical to ensuring that Department leadership can identify and address institutional deficiencies as it responds to the coronavirus outbreak. For example, in its latest annual management challenges report, OIG stated that “Operating in an Uncertain Environment” was among “the most serious” challenges facing the Department. OIG had previously raised concerns about how “external factors and future uncertainties” such as a partial government shutdown can impact the Department’s programs and operations. Coronavirus offers an even more extreme example of such external factors.

The Treasury Department OIG has now been without Senate-confirmed leadership for more than eight months. In June 2019, Eric Thorson retired as Inspector General. The office is currently led by Acting Inspector General Richard Delmar, but the president has yet to nominate someone to permanently fill the post. 

Office of Personnel Management

Role in Coronavirus Response:

The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is not at the center of the administration’s work in combating the coronavirus, but plays a significant role in how more than 2 million federal employees can and will do their jobs during this public health crisis. OPM works closely with several other federal agencies, including the CDC and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to provide agencies with updated information on HR issues related to coronavirus. 

OPM also plays a lead role in telework policy for federal employees. For example, federal agencies are required to report telework data to OPM, which maintains the website for the government’s telework program. In 2017, more than 40 percent of the federal workforce was eligible for telework, but the Trump administration “scaled back working from home as a regular practice at multiple large agencies.” As the Washington Post recently reported, this reversal has complicated a quick ramp-up for telework in federal agencies now, as government health experts have recommended social distancing. OPM has been and will continue to be central to the government’s changes to telework policy for federal workers. This month, OPM has issued guidance on telework and federal mission resilience and urged agencies to be prepared to offer telework to more employees amid the spread of the virus. 

On March 17, 2020, OPM Director Dale Cabaniss abruptly resigned, becoming the second OPM Director to leave their post in less than a year of service after clashing with the White House. Her predecessor, Jeff Tien Han Pon, left OPM in 2018 after 7 months following disagreements with the White House about the restructuring of the civil service. President Trump’s first nominee to lead OPM, George Nesterczuk, withdrew after ethics concerns were raised about his ties to Ukraine.

Inspector General Vacancy: Four years and counting …

OPM OIG’s mission is “protecting the integrity of OPM services and programs through independent and objective oversight.” In early 2017, President Trump withdrew the nomination of Elizabeth Field to serve as OPM’s permanent inspector general. President Obama nominated Field for the position in September 2016. OPM has now been without a permanent inspector general for more than four years since February 19, 2016. President Trump nominated Craig Edward Leen for the position in February 2020, and his nomination is currently pending before the United States Senate.

Department of Health and Human Services

Role in Coronavirus Response: 

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and its programs are the tip of the spear for the federal government’s response to the coronavirus. Unsurprisingly, the agency’s work to combat the spread of coronavirus has received significant public and congressional attention. Most recently, the Washington Post reported that the CDC has been slow to distribute tests and that the virus was moving too quickly for the agency to produce its own test.

HHS is also responsible for directing billions in taxpayer funds to address this public health crisis. In addition to the $3.1 billion in federal funds allocated to HHS largely at the discretion of Secretary Alex Azar, the recent funding bill signed into law by President Trump directs hundreds of millions more to HHS programs and sub-agencies. The funding package would send $826 million to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases “to drive the development of coronavirus vaccines, treatments and tests.” The Food and Drug Administration will receive $61 million to expedite review of new therapies and respond to possible drug and device shortages. CDC will also oversee distribution of $950 million in state and local grants to combat coronavirus, with half of the money due to be allocated within 30 days. Finally, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences is set to receive $10 million to develop training “for health care workers on the front lines of the outbreak to avoid becoming infected.”

Inspector General Vacancy: 9 months and counting …

As CREW previously reported, HHS has now been without a permanent inspector general for more than nine months since June 1, 2019. HHS OIG is the largest IG office in the federal government with more than 1,600 employees. The office will remain integral to ensuring that the HHS coronavirus response is efficient and that it effectively delpoys the billions in taxpayer dollars flowing through the agency to combat the disease.

Department of Defense (DoD)

Role in Coronavirus Response: 

The Department of Defense has worked hard to mitigate the impact of coronavirus on our troops including by “limiting troop movement, restricting the Pentagon and cancel[ing] war games.” However, DoD obviously performs various functions critical to America’s national security interests such as responding to an Iranian-backed rocket launch and Taliban attacks in Afghanistan. After several service members and military family members tested positive for coronavirus, DoD has taken steps to limit “exposure of U.S. and partner nation service members to this virus” and also implemented domestic travel restrictions for department personnel.

DoD and other national security agencies are already working to contain the outbreak within the civilian population. For example, Politico reported that “[h]undreds of National Guard members have already been mobilized as they respond to the crisis.” At least one governor, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, also requested that the administration deploy DoD resources to expand hospital capacity for the sick. 

Inspector General Vacancy: Four years and counting …

DoD OIG will be integral in ensuring that the Pentagon effectively implements safety measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus to service members and their families and has the infrastructure in place to effectively direct its financial and human resources to fight the disease across the country.

In February 2017, President Trump withdrew the nomination of DoD IG’s principal deputy inspector general Glen Fine, who President Obama nominated for the permanent position in September 2016. DoD has now been without a permanent inspector general for more than four years since January 9, 2016.

Department of Education

Role in Coronavirus Response:

Earlier this month, in response to economic concerns about the coronavirus, President Trump announced that he was waiving interest on federal student loans “until further notice.” While questions have been raised about whether the Trump administration could take the action or if it would require legislation in Congress, the Department of Education (ED) was reportedly “scrambling” to implement the new policy by issuing “instructions and guidance to the companies it hires to manage the monthly payments of borrowers.”

On March 10th, more than twenty U.S. senators demanded that Education Secretary Betsey DeVos provide information about ED’s plan to help students impacted by the coronavirus. Elementary and secondary school leaders across the country also faced “anxiety” amidst the lack of information coming from the federal government and debated whether to send students home. Two days after receiving the letter, ED announced that it would relieve school systems of some of their responsibilities under federal law including the Every Student Succeeds Act. The Department also stated that it was considering a one-year waiver for state-administered tests or requirements that school districts test 95 percent of their students. Finally, on Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised school leaders that closings for at least eight weeks “might be the most effective way to contain the coronavirus.”

Inspector General Vacancy: One year and counting …

The Department of Education Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) key functions include recommending actions to address systemic weaknesses and improve agency operations, as well as implementation of disaster recovery measures. This function may become even more relevant as the coronavirus crisis wears on and if ED receives a specific appropriation to help schools, school districts, colleges, universities, and other institutions return to their full capabilities. OIG is also critical to the clearance process for approving federal regulations including by recommending “changes needed in Federal laws and regulations.”

ED has now been without a permanent inspector general for more than a year since December 3, 2018. In November 2018, then-Inspector General Kathy Tighe retired and her deputy became the acting head of the office, per OIG’s normal succession process. Shortly thereafter, the White House and Department leadership informed OIG that ED’s Deputy General Counsel Philip Rosenfelt would replace the acting IG. Following public reporting and congressional scrutiny, the Trump administration walked back the highly questionable appointment and the President hasn’t nominated anyone since.