the justice department’s new watchdog

Morning Edition’s sympathetic profile of Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz this morning is the type of story IG advocates envision. The battle between House Republicans  and Attorney General Eric Holder over access to documents related to the so-called “Fast and Furious” scandal look bad, the story begins:

But one man has already been sifting through secret emails about the operation known as Fast and Furious. He’s Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s new watchdog.

Horowitz was confirmed in March 2012 as DOJ’s Inspector General. His predecessor  Inspector General Glenn Fine served for a decade, which is an eternity in Washington but not uncommon among inspectors general. Fine established a reputation for independence and commitment to public service, and as his Wikipedia entry notes, “He has frequently been profiled in major media outlets.” In Morning Edition’s profile, Inspector General Horowitz is, for his part among other things, “brilliant” “tenacious” and “fair”. He is a former prosecutor with a reputation for “stepping on toes,” which the story says is basically Horowitz’s “new job description.” Of his report on the DOJ Fast and Furious scandal, which sounds like it will be released before this fall’s elections, Horowitz is quoted saying sternly:

That we come out with a report that is fair, that is focused on the facts, that ignores whatever the issues have been out there in terms of claims or counterclaims. We’ve got the evidence in front of us, we’ve got the documents, we’ve got the interviews that we have done and we’re going to need to report on those fairly, fully and completely.

I can’t wait! Two thoughts:

First, while the overall number of senate-confirmed appointees has leveled off, appointed IGs multiply across U.S. government. Political scientists who study “politicization” tend to focus on the presidency, but the proliferation of IGs is driven by a congressional logic aimed at institutionalizing “third-party” oversight. Or, that at least is the story Patrick Roberts and I try to set out in a co-written a paper, we hope soon in print, on the growth of “oversight appointees” like inspectors general.

Second, claims of IG independence may be complicated or overstated, but this strikes me as a good test of neutral competence as an ideal in the public sector. This is an IG with a demonstrated commitment to independence and access to the documents that were the focus of last week’s historic contempt vote against Attorney General Eric Holder. What power will Horowitz’s report hold in the public debate? I don’t know. As a committed bureauphile, my heart says one thing, but my head says another.

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