Watchdog Joins GAO in Celebrating New Name

Posted March 8, 2004 at 4:16pm

As a technicality keeps legislation to rename the General Accounting Office bouncing between the chambers, a nongovernmental watchdog group is eagerly anticipating the side effects of calling GAO the Government Accountability Office.

“I am happy that they are as excited about the term ‘accountability’ as we are,” Government Accountability Project President Louis Clark said. “People will end up coming here thinking that we are GAO. That will be interesting. In the past that’s happened. Now it’s going to happen more.”

The House passed last month a slightly different version of the bill that would change GAO’s name and give the agency greater latitude over its employment practices, sending the bill back to the full Senate.

When the Senate approves the measure once again and it is signed by the president, as expected, GAO will henceforth carry a name Comptroller General David Walker thinks better reflects what the agency is and does. But the strikingly similar-sounding GAP will also benefit from the change.

Clark said GAP staff will continue to redirect witnesses and whistleblowers to GAO, if that’s where they thought such people were headed. But the similar acronym — and now name — helps the organization, he said. “When we contact people in the government, they often think we are GAO and give us more information. In that case, if a government official is more forthcoming with us because they think we’re GAO, we’ll gladly accept that information and use it.”

Founded in 1977, GAP seeks to promote government and corporate accountability through advancing “occupational free speech and ethical conduct, defending whistleblowers and empowering citizen activists,” according to the group’s Web site. The nonprofit organization and law firm receives funding from foundations, individual contributions and legal fees and is one of the primary national whistleblower groups.

Clark said GAO makes regular contact with GAP. “Several times a year we will be engaged with them in an investigative effort. We can be a little more proactive in terms of the media because we are an NGO. They do their investigative reports and it is left to others to take up the mantle and do something with them, and we like to think that’s what we do at the project.”

A spokesman for GAO declined to comment on the relationship.

In addition to changing the agency’s name, the GAO Human Capital Reform Act would give the agency greater flexibility to restructure its work force and attract and retain employees.

The Senate unanimously passed the bill in November. The House passed a slightly different version at the end of February, sending it back to the Senate. Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) and ranking member Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) sent the House’s version out of committee by unanimous consent.

Forty-two Republicans and one Democrat voted against the measure in the House. A spokesman for Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa), who voted against the bill, commented that although it was “not a slight” against Walker, it was “somewhat ironic” that the bill required a budget point of order given that the head of GAO has been publicly reminding Congress to rein in spending.

“Walker has been out there railing Congress, and we agree with him. And his own agency has to get a budget point of order to give his agency money?” spokesman Sean Spicer asked. “I have no doubt Chairman Nussle talked to other folks as well.”

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.