Inspectors general ‘spread thin’ by Trump’s budget

By Kevin Bogardus | 05/24/2017 01:14 PM EDT

This story was updated May 25.

Internal watchdogs at energy and environmental agencies are in for tough times under President Trump’s budget plan.

Inspectors general at both U.S. EPA and the Department of the Interior are subject to budget cuts in the president’s spending proposal for the next fiscal year. Officials in those offices said scarce funds would hamper their ability to root out waste and fraud in the federal government.

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"Impact is we can’t increase our oversight and we continue to be spread thin," Stephen Hardgrove, chief of staff for the Interior IG, told E&E News.

At $49.95 million, Interior’s watchdog would receive slightly less funding in Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal than it did in the fiscal 2017 omnibus spending bill, in which it was slated for $50.05 million.

U.S. EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins and Deputy Interior IG Mary Kendall.
President Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget request proposes budget cuts for the offices of U.S. EPA Inspector General Arthur Elkins and Deputy Interior IG Mary Kendall. | Photos courtesy of EPA and Interior Department.

Hardgrove said the budget request was comparable to what the IG received in the previous continuing resolution for this year. Still, it doesn’t account for a 1.9 percent salary increase or higher rent costs.

"So in practicality, we did get cut about 2 percent," Hardgrove said.

He noted that the Interior IG did better than other agency watchdogs under Trump’s budget but "we will have to reduce staff through attrition and remain one of the smallest Cabinet-level OIGs, despite the size of DOI and its programs."

Hardgrove estimates that the Interior IG will reduce staff levels from 265 employees to 258 under Trump’s budget plan.

Trump has proposed an 11 percent decrease in the Interior’s overall funding, requesting $11.7 billion for fiscal 2018 for the department (Greenwire, May 23).

EPA’s inspector general fared even worse under the president’s budget plan.

Under the fiscal 2017 omnibus, the EPA watchdog received $41.49 million in funding. That is cut in Trump’s budget by roughly $4 million, with the IG slated for $37.48 million.

Tia Elbaum, an EPA IG spokeswoman, told E&E News that the president’s budget proposal would limit the inspector general’s ability "to maintain staffing levels" and "degrade our ability to safeguard scarce taxpayer resources and compromise our effectiveness in addressing complaints and inquiries from our customers, including Congress and the American people."

Elbaum said that at the proposed reduced budget level, the EPA IG would complete fewer audits, program evaluations and investigative casework. The office would shrink under Trump’s plan from about 268 employees to about 201, according to budget documents.

Trump targeted EPA overall for deep budget cuts. Under his proposal, the agency would lose about 30 percent, or more than $2 billion, of its funding, including roughly 3,800 fewer positions (Greenwire, May 23).

Both the EPA and Interior IGs have spoken up in the past about how budget cuts could hurt their investigative work. They participated in a survey of inspectors general on budget cuts and Trump’s hiring freeze run by Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (E&E News PM, May 11).

Unlike the EPA and Interior watchdogs, the Department of Energy inspector general got a funding boost under Trump’s budget proposal.

In the 2017 omnibus, the DOE IG received $44.42 million in funding. The president proposed to increase that figure by almost $5 million, giving the watchdog $49 million for the next fiscal year.

A spokeswoman for the DOE IG, however, said the office actually had more funding than what was reflected in the 2017 spending bill. She noted that "the proposed FY 2018 funding level does not equate to an increased level of funding."

"The OIG did not receive a proposed increase in funding due to the use of carry-over funds from prior years that are not reflected in the FY 2017 appropriation level of $44.4M. The FY 2018 proposed level of funding would enable the OIG to sustain its current level of operation," said Felicia Jones, the DOE IG spokeswoman.

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