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Federal watchdogs want more power to investigate wrongdoing within the government

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Federal watchdogs on the hunt for waste and fraud saved taxpayers $53 billion last year. Now they're asking Congress for more power to investigate wrongdoing within the government. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Lawmakers created jobs for federal inspectors general in 1978 in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.

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ROB PORTMAN: We ask IGs to undertake some of the most important and sensitive oversight work.

JOHNSON: That's Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman, who's sponsoring legislation to give the watchdogs more power.

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PORTMAN: I really think they're Congress' first line of defense against waste, fraud and abuse.

JOHNSON: The bipartisan bill would require the White House to give a detailed explanation when the president fires an inspector general. It would also make clear any replacement should come from the watchdog community, not a crony. Allison Lerner is inspector general at the National Science Foundation.

ALLISON LERNER: To be effective, IGs have to be independent in both mind and appearance. And unfortunately, we've seen situations where that independence has been undermined by putting political appointees or career appointees from within the agency into the IG role.

JOHNSON: Watchdogs already have the power to subpoena documents like memos and emails. But the new bill would give them the power to compel testimony, too, from former government workers and federal contractors. Michael Horowitz is inspector general at the Justice Department.

MICHAEL HOROWITZ: We've had occasions where people have resigned a few hours before a compelled interview precisely because they want to avoid speaking to us.

JOHNSON: Horowitz says that limits his ability to dig for the facts in cases that involve sexual harassment or whistleblowers or in higher-profile investigations like the FBI's botched probe of disgraced gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. The IG wanted to know if a senior FBI agent had a conflict of interest in the case because he was both looking for a job with the Olympic Committee and investigating Nassar. But the watchdog wasn't able to force a key witness in that probe to sit for a second interview, leaving Horowitz with open questions.

HOROWITZ: It takes an enormous amount of courage to come forward and to report that. And the last thing you want to do is have individuals who have the courage to come forward not see that justice occurs because we're unable to get the evidence.

JOHNSON: The IG concluded the FBI's inaction allowed Nassar to sexually abuse dozens of girls and young women after the first tips came in about him. The House has already passed a version of the legislation to strengthen the hand of federal watchdogs. This week a key Senate committee advanced the bill, and the inspectors general are hoping for momentum in the full Senate this winter.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.