Opinion: A small ‘Trump proofing’ reform is set to advance. It could make a real difference.

Jun 29, 2021
In The News

Sometime on Tuesday evening, the House of Representatives is expected to pass a bill that would strengthen the independence and oversight powers of inspectors general in a host of new ways.

This sounds like dry good-government speak, and it has gotten little media attention. But it’s important: If it does become law, it could help prevent future presidential abuses of the sort that Donald Trump trafficked in so heavily when he lived in the White House. (Yes, that really happened.)

The bill — which is called the IG Independence and Empowerment Act, and is being championed by Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) — would codify into law a host of new safeguards for inspectors general. Those are the internal watchdogs at government agencies who are supposed to be independent from pressure from presidents or their political appointees.

The measure responds to abuses that we saw undertaken with great relish by Trump. For instance, it codifies a requirement that a president can only remove an IG if specific and defined types of malfeasance or lawbreaking have been documented.

Trump, you may recall, fired numerous IGs for the heresy of exposing his wrongdoing and incompetence, at times practically declaring openly that this alone is what merited their removal.

The bill also places new limitations on a president’s ability to leave an IG position blank, an obvious way a president might limit oversight on himself.

“This sets in law some boundaries that didn’t exist before, which is great,” congressional scholar Norm Ornstein told me.

Ornstein noted that there is always still the capacity for abuse — a president might simply ignore these boundaries, provoking interminable court battles — but at bottom, that level of determination to behave corruptly is hard to police.

Another big provision would empower IGs to subpoena former agency officials as well as current ones. This is germane right now: One can imagine the inspector general at the Justice Department subpoenaing — we’re just spitballing here — former attorney general William P. Barr.

After all, the Justice Department’s IG has announced that he will examine how the Trump-era department sought data on reporters and Democratic members of Congress. We’re likely to learn a lot more about corruption of the department under Trump, and an empowered IG could help.

The bill contains numerous other reforms, such as one secured by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) that would require the notification of Congress if an IG is relieved of duty.

Does this have any chance of becoming law? Maybe. An aide to the Oversight Committee tells me it’s expected to pass the House.

What about the Senate? Democratic aides note that Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, is a longtime proponent of protecting IGs, so there’s some hope.

On the other hand, as Ornstein points out, the measure’s provision allowing the subpoenaing of former officials “is the one most likely to bring a Republican filibuster in the Senate.”

If so, that will be quite a political position for Republicans to adopt: We don’t support beefing up oversight of the executive branch because it might reflect badly on Trump, never mind that he isn’t even president anymore.

“To my Republican colleagues who may say these efforts are about attacking President Trump,” Rep. Maloney, the chair of the House Oversight Committee, said on the floor Tuesday, “I would respond with this: Joe Biden is the president now.”

And President Biden? Will he support this?

Well, the White House is reportedly resisting a broader suite of “Trump proofing” reforms that would strengthen oversight of the executive branch and beef up protections for IGs and whistleblowers in other ways. But it’s hard to see how this will be sustainable, given that Biden ran so hard against Trump’s wanton destruction of democracy.

In a sense, the bill’s basic goal — reforming and updating the 1978 law creating the current inspectors general regime, a central post-Watergate innovation — points to a much larger need.

As happened after Watergate, it takes epic levels of corruption to force far reaching good-governmental reform. We now need to respond to Trump’s monumental abuses with a much broader set of similar reform initiatives. If this new one becomes law, it will represent one step in that direction.