Inspectors General: Independent Oversight of Financial Regulatory Agencies

GAO-09-524T: Mar 25, 2009

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This testimony discusses H.R. 885, Improved Financial and Commodity Markets Oversight and Accountability Act. This proposed legislation recently referred to Congress is intended to enhance the independence of inspectors general (IG) in key financial regulatory agencies including the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the National Credit Union Administration, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. In numerous reports and testimonies over the last several years, we have discussed the key role that IGs play in federal agency oversight. The Inspector General Act of 1978, created offices of inspector general at major departments and agencies with IGs who are appointed by the President, confirmed by the Senate, and may be removed only by the President with notice to the Congress stating the reasons. The IGs are to prevent and detect fraud and abuse in their agencies' programs and operations; conduct audits and investigations; and recommend policies to promote economy, efficiency, and effectiveness. In 1988, the 1978 IG Act was amended to establish additional IG offices in designated federal entities (DFE) defined by the act. Generally, the DFE IGs have the same authorities and responsibilities as those originally established by the IG Act but there is a clear distinction--they are appointed and may be removed by their agency heads rather than by the President and are not subject to Senate confirmation. In the now more than three decades since passage of the IG Act, the IGs have been instrumental in enhancing government accountability. This testimony discusses (1) the legislative proposals in H.R. 885, (2) the key principles and importance of auditor and IG independence, and (3) current coordination mechanisms in place for IG offices.

Currently, both the administration and the Congress are considering many options aimed at strengthening the financial regulatory system. H.R. 885 would provide for the inspectors general for selected financial regulatory agencies to be appointed by the President with Senate confirmation. Those IGs currently are appointed by their agency heads and may be removed by their agency heads. H.R. 885, Improved Financial and Commodity Markets Oversight and Accountability Act, would provide for the conversion of these IGs from appointment by their respective agency heads to appointment by the President with confirmation by the Senate. Likewise, after this conversion, these IGs may be removed only by the President with advance notification to the Congress of the reasons. We believe that the differences in the appointment and removal processes between presidentially appointed IGs and those appointed by their agency heads result in a clear difference in the level of independence of the IGs. A general tenet to keep in mind is that the further removed the appointment source is from the entity to be audited, the greater the level of independence. In the past, the Congress has taken actions to convert IGs from appointment by their agency heads to appointment by the President with Senate confirmation as a way to enhance IG independence. For example, on the heels of the savings and loan and banking crisis, over two decades ago, the role of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation's (FDIC) IG became increasingly important in providing oversight. Due to the perceived limitation of the FDIC IG's independence resulting from agency appointment, the Congress converted the IG from agency appointment to appointment by the President with Senate confirmation. In another example, the Congress took action to convert the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) IG to appointment by the President with Senate confirmation because of concerns about interference by TVA management. In both cases, Congress recognized that the IG's independence would be enhanced by the presidential appointment. The change from agency appointment to appointment by the President has been recognized by Congress since the advent of the IG concept as strengthening the critical element of IG independence. As we have noted in prior reports and testimony, we believe independence is one of the most important elements of an effective IG function.

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