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Image: The Capitol in Washington on Oct. 17, 2019.
The Capitol in Washington on Oct. 17, 2019.Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images file

Republicans balk at bill to protect federal independent watchdogs

In theory, there's nothing partisan about protecting inspectors general from the next Trump. In practice, however, Republicans balked at a Democratic plan.


As congressional fights go, the measure to protect inspectors general didn't generate a lot of political chatter, which is a shame because yesterday's House vote was significant. The Washington Post reported overnight:

The House passed a comprehensive package of reforms Tuesday to protect inspectors general from being fired or otherwise prevented from doing their jobs, a measure inspired by President Donald Trump's pattern of ousting the agency watchdogs who challenged him. The 221-to-182 vote fell almost completely along party lines, heralding a long and difficult road ahead for congressional Democrats as they attempt a variety of initiatives to prevent future presidents from silencing their critics and punishing their enemies with as much impunity as Trump did.

To appreciate why such legislation was drafted, let's revisit our earlier coverage and take stock of how we arrived at this point.

In early April 2020, after Donald Trump fired the inspector general of the intelligence community, a bipartisan group of senators pushed back against the decision. Soon after, some Senate Republicans, each of whom were generally allied with the Republican White House, wrote to the then-president, urging him "to work with IGs, not against them."

Two weeks later, Politico reported that GOP lawmakers were determined to "convince the president that inspectors general aren't his enemies."

Trump didn't just blow off the concerns from within his own party, he also proceeded to fire a total of four IGs in six weeks -- by some counts, five -- and most of the sackings came late on Fridays. The fact that the decisions were held for Friday night news dumps suggested at the time that the then-president and his team knew the moves were wrong, but they keep taking the steps anyway, confident Trump and his aides would get away with it.

They were right. The Washington Post's David Ignatius called out Trump for waging "a relentless campaign -- waged even in the midst of the pandemic -- against people and institutions that can hold him accountable," but the Republican-led Senate refused to act, and leaders in the Democratic-led House had their hands full scrutinizing a variety of other presidential scandals.

The task lawmakers face now is preventing the next Trump from attempting similar abuses by establishing new safeguards to protect inspectors general, specifically with new restrictions on why IGs can be ousted from their posts.

In theory, there's nothing inherently partisan or ideological about the debate. Inspectors general operate as independent watchdogs throughout the federal bureaucracy, conducting thorough investigations, identifying problems, rooting out malfeasance, and offering policymakers an opportunity to put things right.

It's precisely why Team Trump had so many problems with IGs: they got in the way of a corrupt president.

It's against this backdrop that the "IG Independence and Empowerment Act" reached the House floor yesterday. It passed 221 to 182, but the partisan breakdown was jarring: among Democrats, the vote was 218 to 0, while among House Republicans, the final tally was 3 to 182. (The legislation would empower IGs to subpoena former administration officials, which reportedly became a major sticking point for GOP lawmakers.)

The bill now heads to an evenly divided Senate, where it's likely to die at the hands of a Republican filibuster.