The RAT hiding deep inside the stimulus bill


The far-reaching — and potentially dangerous — provision that no one knows about.

You’ve heard a lot about the astonishing spending in the $787 billion economic stimulus bill, signed into law this week by President Barack Obama. But you probably haven’t heard about a provision in the bill that threatens to politicize the way allegations of fraud and corruption are investigated — or not investigated — throughout the federal government.

The provision, which attracted virtually no attention in the debate over the 1,073-page stimulus bill, creates something called the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board — the RAT Board, as it’s known by the few insiders who are aware of it. The board would oversee the in-house watchdogs, known as inspectors general, whose job is to independently investigate allegations of wrongdoing at various federal agencies, without fear of interference by political appointees or the White House.

In the name of accountability and transparency, Congress has given the RAT Board the authority to ask “that an inspector general conduct or refrain from conducting an audit or investigation.” If the inspector general doesn’t want to follow the wishes of the RAT Board, he’ll have to write a report explaining his decision to the board, as well as to the head of his agency (from whom he is supposedly independent) and to Congress. In the end, a determined inspector general can probably get his way, but only after jumping through bureaucratic hoops that will inevitably make him hesitate to go forward.

When Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, a longtime champion of inspectors general, read the words “conduct or refrain from conducting,” alarm bells went off. The language means that the board — whose chairman will be appointed by the president — can reach deep inside a federal agency and tell an inspector general to lay off some particularly sensitive subject. Or, conversely, it can tell the inspector general to go after a tempting political target.

“This strikes at the heart of the independence of inspectors general,” Grassley told me this week, in a phone conversation between visits to town meetings in rural Iowa. “Anytime an inspector general has somebody questioning his authority, it tends to dampen the aggressiveness with which they pursue something, particularly if it’s going to make the incumbent administration look bad.”

I asked Grassley how he learned that the RAT Board was part of the stimulus bill. You’d think that as a member of the House-Senate conference committee, he would have known all about it. But it turns out Grassley’s office first heard about the provision creating the RAT Board last Wednesday, in a tip from a worried inspector general. It wasn’t until Friday morning — after the bill was finished and just hours before the Senate was to begin voting — that Grassley discovered the board was in the final text. “This was snuck in,” Grassley told me. “It wasn’t something that was debated.”

Snuck in by whom? It’s not entirely clear. “I intend to get down to the bottom of where this comes from,” Grassley vowed. “And quite frankly, it better not come from this administration, because this administration has reminded us that it is not about business as usual, that it is for total transparency.”

Maybe not this time. When I inquired with the office of a Democratic senator, one who is a big fan of inspectors general, I was told the RAT Board was “something the Obama administration wanted included in this bill.” When I asked the White House, staffers told me they’d look into it. So for now, at least, there’s been no claim of paternity.

The RAT Board has all sorts of other things wrong with it. For one thing, it’s redundant; there is already a board through which inspectors general police themselves, created last year in the Inspectors General Reform Act. For another thing, it could complicate criminal investigations stemming from inspector general probes. And then there’s the question of what it has to do with stimulating the economy.

But none of that matters now. It’s the law.

Last Friday, when he learned the RAT Board was in the final bill, Grassley wanted to voice his objections on the Senate floor. But there was no time in the rush to a vote, so Grassley’s statement went unread. “It’s fitting that the acronym for this board is RAT,” he was prepared to tell the Senate, “because that’s what I smell here.”

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