Months into office, Trump has yet to appoint key agency watchdogs

President Trump listens to a question from a reporter following his meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley and national security adviser H.R. McMaster at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., Friday, Aug. 11, 2017.

Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

Before taking office in January, President Trump's incoming administration quietly threatened to remove some of the 72 nonpartisan, independent government watchdogs tasked with vetting out waste, fraud and abuse in federal agencies.

The president and his team quickly backpedaled on that plan after intense blowback from good government groups and Democrats. But now, nearly seven months into office, it's his inaction that has some government integrity groups concerned. Mr. Trump has only nominated one watchdog to fill the 13 current vacancies among inspectors general, even though he pledged to "drain the swamp" during his campaign.

"Whether you're Democrat or Republican, I feel like you want this nonpartisan group [of inspectors general] putting checks on the people spending your tax dollars," said Nick Pacifico, associate general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a nonprofit watchdog that tracks inspector general vacancies. "And I think a lot of people don't realize we have such people in the government that are doing this work."

POGO believes installing permanent inspectors general is key to making government function well. Inspectors general investigate everything from whistleblower complaints of fiscal mismanagement to employee misconduct cases, and on average, reap a return on investment of $13.41 for in recovered or saved funds for every $1 they spend, according to the Brookings Institution

Many of their investigations are narrow in focus and gain little attention, while others are wide-ranging and high-profile, like the Justice Department inspector general's ongoing review of how DOJ and the FBI handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server.

Of the 72 IG offices, 13 currently have no permanent inspector general, operating with an acting inspector general. But so far, Mr. Trump has only nominated one IG, Robert Storch, the current Justice Department deputy inspector general, to the position of National Security Administration (NSA) inspector general. The president made that selection, which needs to be confirmed by the Senate, in June.

"Leaders are important for a reason, and stopping agencies from having them is a good way to neuter their effectiveness," Pacifico said.

Several of those agencies lacking a permanent IG are in the intelligence community, a sector of the government under special scrutiny amid the investigation into Russian election meddling and any ties to the Trump campaign.

"These intelligence community agencies -- especially with everything that's going on -- it's a concern of course that they don't have a longstanding member of the IG community," Pacifico said.

Three agencies' inspectors general have departed without a permanent replacement since Mr. Trump took office. They are the Federal Election Commission inspector general, the intelligence community inspector general and, most recently, the Department of Housing and Urban Development inspector general.

But many vacancies long predate Mr. Trump's arrival in the White House.

The Department of the Interior hasn't had a permanent IG since February 2009, shortly after former President Barack Obama took office, according to POGO. The Export-Import Bank hasn't had a permanent IG since June 2014. The Central Intelligence Agency hasn't had a permanent IG since January 2015.

The day before the November 2016 presidential election, the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) urged the Senate to confirm eight nominees Obama had appointed. But nominations expire when a president departs from the White House, leaving Mr. Trump to re-nominate people or make his own selections. 

"A sustained absence of permanent leadership for any office, particularly one entrusted with the important and challenging mission of an Office of Inspector General (OIG), is neither prudent nor reflective of good governance," CIGIE chair and Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, and CIGIE vice chair and National Science Foundation Inspector General Allison Lerner wrote in November to Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky.

"Moreover, no matter how able or experienced an acting inspector general may be, a permanent IG has the ability to exercise more authority in setting new policies and procedures and, by virtue of the authority provided for in the IG Act, inevitably will be seen as having greater independence."

Having acting inspectors general instead of permanent ones runs the risk of those offices being less effective, Pacifico said. Acting IGs can be under more pressure to be influenced by agency heads. They may also be hampered from overseeing long-term investigations, as they don't know how long they'll be in place.

"If they're not going to be there that long, it really restricts their ability to implement longstanding change or long investigations that they're not going to be able to follow through," Pacifico said.

Mr. Trump's progress on nominations requiring Senate confirmation has been slow. For 587 key positions requiring Senate confirmation, 364 have no nominee, 106 have been formally nominated but not confirmed, and 117 have been confirmed, according to a Washington Post tracker.

The White House did not immediately return a request for comment on its progress on inspector general nominations.

"It's all on the president at this point," Pacifico said. 

  • Kathryn Watson

    Kathryn Watson is a politics reporter for CBS News Digital.