A ‘permanent office holder’

Connor Echols

If you opened up the Washington Post on January 9, 2016, you would have seen that celebrity billionaire Donald Trump had taken an unexpected lead in the Republican primary as establishment candidates like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie sparred over how to bring down the insurgent candidate. Hillary Clinton, then bogged down in a challenging primary contest with Bernie Sanders, was upbeat about her chances against Trump, relishing the chance to attack him as an unqualified extremist.
At the same time, authorities in Mexico were celebrating after capturing notorious drug kingpin El Chapo for the third (and final) time, marking the end of a decades-long game of cat and mouse.
Given the drama at the top of the news cycle, it’s understandable that, when Pentagon Inspector General Jon Rymer stepped down that day, it received no mention in America’s newspapers of record. After all, he was immediately followed by Glenn Fine, a qualified nominee appointed by President Barack Obama to head the office in an acting capacity until he could receive Senate confirmation.
But confirmation never came. President Donald Trump didn’t put forward a nominee for the role until 2020. That nomination lap-sed when President Joe Bi-den took office, after which it took the Democratic leader almost a year to name his own candidate.
Today, more than six years after the last confirmed IG, Congress has still not signed off on a nominee to serve as the top watchdog of one of the government’s largest, most well-funded agencies. This gap is a major problem for government oversight, ac-cording to Fine who argued in a recent op-ed that an “acting” agency head is simply not the same as a “permanent office holder.”
“Some people in the agency — and some even in the IG’s office — think they can wait you out, because you may not be there for a long time. They may not respond to IG reports or recommendations with the same urgency,” he wrote. “And a permanent IG can more readily set strategic policy and make long-term personnel decisions.”
Lynne Halbrooks, who served as the acting IG at the Pentagon for almost two years in the early 2010s, agreed.
“It affects the morale of the IG’s office in particular,” Halbrooks said in an interview with Responsible Statecraft, adding that a long vacancy in the office’s top role could be “devastating” to internal operations, “which ultimately might have an effect on the oversight mission.”
And, with an ever-rising Pentagon budget and more than a billion dollars worth of weapons flowing from the United States to Ukraine each month, DoD has rarely had such an urgent need for high-quality oversight. So why has the position been neglected for so long? The short answer is: politics.
Following Biden’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) decided to block all Pentagon and State Department nominees from receiving “unanimous consent” in the Senate, a procedural roadblock that can only be overturned through a floor debate.
While Senate leaders have taken the time to overrule Hawley’s block for some other nominees, none has been willing to do so to help DoD IG nominee Robert Storch, who has awaited Senate approval since his nomination advanced past the Senate Armed Services Committee in March. Given Storch’s long experience in watchdog roles, his confirmation should have been a formality, according to Joanna Derman of the Project on Government Oversight.
“I think he’s a very credible individual with demonstrable oversight experience,” Derman said in an interview. “I think he’s done a great job in the past and would be obviously a great candidate to be permanent DoD IG.”
Hawley did not respond to a request for comment.
The length of the vacancy has also raised legal questions. In a report from earlier this year, the Government Accountability Office determined that current Acting IG Sean O’Donnell, who took over in 2020, is holding the office illegally, citing a law meant to restrict the length of vacancies for major federal appointments. Just last week, the Justice Department rejected GAO’s finding, arguing that the timer to fill a vacancy resets when a new president comes to power.
Beyond the legal debate, there are also concerns about the fact that O’Donnell is simultaneously serving as the head watchdog at the Environmental Protection Agency.
“EPA and DoD, those are incredibly large organizations,” Derman said. “I think it’s troublesome that one individual is responsible for overseeing both at this time.”
Notably, the Pentagon’s IG office says that O’Donnell has been effective despite the fact that he is serving in an acting capacity. They also deny that his dual appointment has had a negative impact on the work at either agency.
And it’s important to note that the problems with government watchdogs go well beyond this particular case. Since the first Pentagon IG took office in 1983, an acting IG has held the job approximately 40 percent of the time, hobbling the office’s oversight capabilities in ways that we will never truly know. And other major agencies, including the State Department, also lack a confirmed inspector general today.
But the current delay in confirming a new Pentagon IG is by far the longest in the history of the office. DoD oversight has been on a downward trajectory for years, and, as U.S. military assistance and spending skyrocket, there’s a desperate need to correct that trend. As Fine wrote, “[s]ix years without a permanent IG at the Defense Department is far too long.”