updated 10/3/2007 7:04:00 PM ET 2007-10-03T23:04:00

Government watchdogs would gain more autonomy and protection from political retribution under legislation the House passed Wednesday. The White House threatened a veto, saying the measure infringes on presidential authority over inspectors general.

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The bill is the latest proposal where the Bush administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress have clashed over executive branch versus congressional authority. Other disputes have involved who should set policy on secret surveillance, the treatment of suspected terrorists and military operations in Iraq.

The inspector general legislation passed 404-11, well above the level needed for the House to override a veto. The full Senate has not yet taken up the issue.

The measure would give inspectors general a defined seven-year term of office and state that they only can be removed from office for cause. That includes as neglect of duty, inefficiency, conviction for a felony or conduct involving moral turpitude.

To avoid conflicts with the agencies they oversee, all the independent watchdogs could submit their budgets directly to the White House budget office and to Congress, according to the bill.

The White House said the restriction on a president's ability to remove an inspector general "raises grave constitutional concerns." It said allowing inspectors general to submit budgets directly to Congress would "circumvent the president's long-standing, and constitutionally based, control over executive branch budget requests."

Political pressure at play, sponsor says
But the bill's sponsor, Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., said that too often "IGs are subject to
pressure by political appointees who want to stifle negative findings about their agencies. In other cases, errant IGs violate rules with impunity because administrators don't want to be seen firing the watchdog."

The 1978 Inspector General Act created independent offices in executive departments and agencies to supervise audits and investigate waste and fraud. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said in a report that in 2006 alone, inspector general offices identified $9.9 billion in potential savings from audit recommendations and $6.8 billion from investigative recoveries.

But the report also listed several recent incidents, including Democratic allegations that the State Department's inspector general, Howard Krongard, interfered with investigations to protect the department and the White House from political embarrassment; and that NASA's inspector general, Robert Cobb, penalized his own investigators for pursuing cases possibly involving theft, safety violations and other wrongdoing.

The report detailed other instances where the watchdogs have been pressured by agency leaders to drop investigations.

There are currently 58 inspector general offices established under the 1978 law; half are appointed by the president with Senate confirmation and half are appointed by agency heads.

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