The Watergate scandal left many Americans wondering if they could ever trust their government again. In October 1978, hoping to restore public confidence in federal institutions, Congress created new mechanisms for oversight and new agencies to administer them, including the Office of Government Ethics, the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Office of Personnel Management, and the Federal Labor Relations Authority. It further established a cadre of inspectors general at large federal agencies. Public servants like me who have worked in these agencies or inspector general offices think of 1978 as the 1776 of our anticorruption work.
Jimmy Carter, who signed the Inspector General Act into law, saw the new inspectors general as a tool to “root out fraud and abuse.” As his chief domestic policy adviser Stuart Eizenstat later put it, “For him, Watergate was not simply the break-in and the cover-up. It was the abuse of power, the misuse of the IRS and the CIA against domestic enemies.”
Donald Trump; illustration by Ellie Foreman-Peck
If Donald Trump’s goal is to abuse power, he may have special cause to fear the seventy-four inspector general offices. They investigate wrongdoing and audit the performance of federal agencies and government programs to detect problems or identify systemic risks that could harm the public. They are supposed to be nonpartisan and independent; as a line of defense against the various forms of corruption that can infect government agencies, they have traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support. But that tradition is being tested as Trump seeks to gain control over these watchdogs.