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Bill to Change Title, Powers of GAO Finally Takes Effect

Hold on to any Government Accounting Office reports: They are now relics.

As of Wednesday, GAO’s official name is the Government Accountability Office, a change Comptroller General David Walker thinks better reflects what his organization “is and does” for Congress in the 21st century.

President Bush signed legislation this week that renamed Congress’ investigative arm and gives the agency flexibility in restructuring its work force and attracting and retaining employees.

Although the bill was noncontroversial, it nonetheless took more than a year to reach the president’s desk.

The Senate originally passed the legislation in November 2003, followed by the House in February. The bills were nearly identical, but because the bill referenced the Internal Revenue Service, the Senate had to take up the House’s version, because all “revenue” bills must originate in the House. The Senate passed the bill for a second time by unanimous consent before the July Fourth recess.

But in the meantime several Senators put holds on the legislation. Walker upset several Members with his dismissal of William Scanlon, a health care expert who helped lawmakers and staff navigate the complexities of the Medicare prescription-drug bill. But Walker, who was appointed to a 15-year term as head of the legislative branch agency by President Bill Clinton, managed to resolve those and other concerns, mostly unrelated to the bill’s core purpose. Scanlon has since been named to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission.

GAO was established in 1921 primarily to pre-audit the expenditures of federal agencies. In subsequent years, GAO’s statutory obligations were expanded to include program evaluation and policy analysis. Today, less than 15 percent of the agency focuses on traditional financial accounting.

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

The GAO Human Capital Reform Act authorizes the Comptroller General to adjust annually the basic pay for GAO officers and employees whose performance is “satisfactory,” and provides the same authority with respect to Senior Executive Service officers and employees. GAO’s pay scale had previously been tied to the executive branch’s general schedule.

The law also adds authority for an executive-exchange program with private-sector organizations; allows greater flexibility in annual leave for upper-level hires; and permits the agency to offer voluntary early-retirement buyouts.

The House bill was drafted by Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-Va.), who chairs the Government Reform subcommittee on civil service and agency organization. Government Affairs Chairwoman Susan Collins (R-Maine) co-sponsored the legislation in the Senate along with Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio).

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