When Congress and President Carter approved creation of the present inspector general program in 1978, the new officials were intended to be the front line of attack against waste and fraud in the federal government. Federal spending was just over $400 billion that year. Washington will spend nearly $4 trillion in 2014. Odds are good that there is as much or more waste and fraud in government today as there was in the entire federal budget in 1978. It's scary to think how much worse it would be now had not aggressively independent inspectors general referred thousands of crooked bureaucrats and contractors for prosecution and recommended management reforms that saved hundreds of billions of tax dollars over the years.

So it's especially troubling to observe how President Obama has approached the inspectors general throughout his tenure in the Oval Office. In some respects, Obama has been apathetic toward the inspectors general, with his failure to nominate one for the State Department throughout Hillary Clinton's time as secretary as the most serious example. Bad things happen when inspector general vacancies go unfilled. At the State Department, for example, bureaucrats spent millions of tax dollars buying Facebook “likes.” The threat of exposure by an inspector general can be a powerful incentive against such thoughtless expenditures.

The threat of exposure by an inspector general can be a powerful incentive against thoughtless expenditures.

More serious has been the manner in which inspectors general have been interfered with by the Obama administration. At the Department of the Interior, for example, when the House Committee on Natural Resources asked last December for a copy of one of the department's inspector general reports, management officials screened what was given to Congress. In a blistering letter Wednesday, committee Chairman Doc Hastings told Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall that her office's cooperation with Interior managers in redacting information in the report comes “at the expense of fulfilling [the IG's] statutory obligation to be an independent watchdog and to keep Congress fully informed of management problems and waste, fraud and abuse within the department.”

Hastings is exactly right about the statutory obligation of inspectors general to be independent of executive branch managers. As they have been from their beginning, inspectors general are nominated by the president, but they answer to Congress. Whenever executive branch officials are allowed to interfere, an inspector general becomes dependent upon those he or she is required by law to monitor and, if necessary, to investigate impartially regarding waste, fraud and abuse issues. It is impossible for an inspector general whose independence is compromised to be what President Reagan called “junkyard dogs” on behalf of the taxpayer.

The report sought by the Hastings panel concerns the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement, which for more than three years has been writing a proposed revision of the 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule concerning coal production. The rule is meant to “minimize disturbances to fish, wildlife, and related environmental values to the extent possible using the best technology currently available," according to the OSM. Interior officials have worked on the rule for three years. Congress and the public have a right to know what's taking so long.