GAO Bill Ready for House Vote

Posted February 24, 2004 at 6:05pm

The House is set to take up legislation today that would change the General Accounting Office’s name and give the agency greater flexibility to restructure its work force and attract and retain employees. The Senate unanimously passed the bill in November.

In addition to renaming GAO the Government Accountability Office — which Comptroller General David Walker thinks better reflects the agency’s mission — the nearly identical measures would allow GAO to offer voluntary early retirement and buyouts. It would also separate GAO’s pay scale from the executive branch, add authority for an executive exchange program with private-sector organizations, and allow greater flexibility in the annual leave offered to upper-level hires.

When it was created in 1921, GAO primarily focused on pre-auditing agency expenditures. Thirty years later, GAO’s statutory obligations shifted to auditing government agencies and even later were expanded to include program evaluation and policy analysis. Today, less than 15 percent of the agency focuses on traditional financial accounting.

GAO sought and received temporary authority to restructure the agency four years ago, including new flexibilities to offer incentives for voluntary early retirement and buyouts. That authority expired in October.

Walker’s request to make that authority permanent reflected his desire to further retool GAO to better serve Congress and followed the release of the agency’s first strategic plan. The five-year (2002-2007) blueprint resulted in a complete restructuring and prompted the closing of five of 16 offices nationwide and eliminated a layer of management.

The House bill was drafted by Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.), who chairs the Government Reform subcommittee on civil service and agency organization. A spokesman for Davis said the Rules Committee was scheduled to draft a rule governing the bill Tuesday evening. The Senate version was sponsored by Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine).

The GAO Human Capital Reform Act authorizes Walker — who serves a 15-year term as head of the legislative branch agency — to adjust annually the basic rates of GAO officers and employees whose performance is “satisfactory,” and provides the same authority with respect to senior executive service officers and employees. Currently, GAO’s pay scale is tied to the executive branch’s general schedule.

If passed by the House and signed by President Bush, as expected, the bill would also provide that Walker write regulations allowing GAO employees to receive pay retention if, as a result of work force restructuring, their positions are reclassified with lower salaries. Employees could also be reimbursed for relocation expenses at the comptroller general’s discretion and individuals with less than three years of government service hired into managerial or other upper-level posts could receive more vacation time than they would be otherwise entitled to under current law.

The bill would give Walker authority to establish an executive exchange program under which upper-level GAO employees could be assigned to private-sector organizations, and employees of private-sector organizations may be assigned to GAO, for work of “mutual concern and benefit.”