There ought to be a statue of L.H. Fountain in the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall, where Congress commemorates great legislators. The unassuming lawyer from Tarboro, N.C., who served in the House of Representatives from 1953 to 1983, was the author and driving force behind the 1978 statute that created the system of federal inspectors general, a critical tool of modern government.
Rep. Fountain, an expert on federalism and intergovernmental relations, recognized the need for a way to keep the increasingly independent agencies of the federal government honest and accountable to voters and Congress. The IGs are a potent force for reminding federal officials that they are the public's servants, not its masters.
Today there are 73 IG offices. Thirty-two require a presidential nomination. Of these 12 are vacant. IGs jealously guard their independence from control by the agencies where they are embedded as well as their right to speak frankly to Congress and the public about administrative shortcomings.
(One exception: a recent Department of Homeland Security interim IG, who resigned after co-workers charged that he altered reports to please department officials in apparent hope of having his appointment made permanent.)
For example, the assistant inspector general of the Veterans Affairs Department recently told Congress it is hard to believe any statistics put out by that beleaguered and self-defensive agency.
A scathing IG report on obstruction by the chairman of the Chemical Safety Board (CSB), an obscure office attached to the Environmental Protection Agency, last month produced a rare moment of nonpartisan comity between hard-charging Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and ranking Democratic member Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland.
The two have clashed repeatedly over Mr. Issa's attempts to investigate why the Internal Revenue Service discriminated against conservative groups seeking non-profit tax status in the run-up to the 2012 election - a malpractice brought to light by the inspector general of the IRS.
But they agreed that the inspector general of EPA, Arthur Elkins, had the goods on CSB Chairman Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso, who had preposterously claimed attorney-client privilege to deny the IG and Congress access to official documents that might shed light on a complaint of retaliation against CSB whistle-blowers claiming a hostile work environment.
The IG added that during his chairmanship the number of chemical accidents investigated by the CSB sharply declined.
Dr. Moure-Eraso's attempt to hide behind attorney-client privilege finds a suggestive parallel in former IRS employee Lois Lerner's refusal to testify before Mr. Issa's committee about her role in blocking conservative group applications for non-profit tax status. In both cases public servants took the position that it's none of your business what they do on the job.
Without IGs, renegade public employees might get away with anything. Mr. Elkins, for example, found earlier this year that EPA employees were using government credit cards for personal items, including a gym membership. IGs at other agencies, including the IRS and the Postal Service, have also found employees abusing government credit cards.
Given their contribution to good government, you have to wonder why Mr. Obama hasn't moved forward on 10 of 12 vacancies for agency inspectors general. Those include major agencies: the Interior Department (position vacant since 2009), the Veterans Affairs Department and the General Services Administration. He should get off the dime and send the Senate his choices.
President Obama claims wide scope for action independent of Congress, and indeed the administrative state created by Congress over the past 80 years has vast powers, increasingly so.
As L.H. Fountain foresaw, Congress needs inspectors general to keep the bureaucracy in check.