New Bills Would Establish Inspector General for GAO

Posted February 1, 2008 at 6:45pm

The Government Accountability Office would have more accountability under two identical bills in the House and Senate.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) introduced the Senate bill last week at the request of Comptroller General David Walker, who heads the watchdog agency. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) introduced the companion bill.

As written, the bill would establish an inspector general, change the process for appointing the deputy comptroller general and lift some pay restrictions.

“First, we’re always looking to try to strengthen GAO’s efficiency and effectiveness and enhance our ability to serve Congress,” Walker said. “The bill also continues our effort to lead by example in a number of areas dealing with transparency.”

But what Walker describes as a “positive bill” could turn controversial if lawmakers or union officials attempt to use it as a vehicle for fighting the agency’s market-based, performance-driven pay system.

As one of the first federal agencies to adopt the system, the GAO has had a hard time with it: Angry employees formed the agency’s first-ever union last fall, and several Members have spoken out against Walker’s tactics.

Union leaders have already proposed changes to the legislation that would limit what Walker could do under the new pay system. An added provision would require the GAO to keep employees’ salaries equal or above their counterparts in the rest of the federal government, while another would give an annual cost-of-living raise to all employees who get a “meets expectations” rating. This stems from a pay restructuring in 2004 that left hundreds of employees without that annual raise.

“We think Congress needs to take a look at GAO and revamp the way they operate internally,” said Matt Briggs, the legislative director of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents GAO analysts. “The union has provided Congress with a proposal of our own.”

That proposal also includes a request to make the agency’s Personnel Appeals Board more autonomous. Currently, GAO management is present when the board hears an employee’s complaint.

While union officials said some lawmakers have been receptive to their recommendations, Walker said he was confident that Members would not add unnecessarily controversial elements to the bill.

“This bill is designed to do positive things for our employees and do positive things for the Congress of the American people,” Walker said. “If people try to unreasonably reduce our existing flexibility, then I will fight it and I’m confident we will prevail.”

It’s a little too early to determine how the House bill will change, said one staffer from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which Waxman chairs.. At this point, the House committee is looking over it and has not set a date for a hearing or markup.

However, union officials and analysts are hopeful that they will get a proponent in Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service and the District of Columbia.

One staffer said the subcommittee will look not only at Walker’s proposal but also at the years of hearings and research on the GAO to determine how to proceed on the bill. A hearing on Feb. 12 will address pay-for-performance systems at several agencies, including the GAO.

The Senate bill is set to go before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. At this point, the wording is Walker’s, but as it moves forward, it “will be subject to evaluation and revision as it moves through committee,” said Leslie Phillips, the committee’s spokeswoman.

Some of the bills’ basic ideas have gained the union’s support. One would allow Walker to suspend his own annual raise until employees’ get theirs; another would raise the pay cap for high-ranking employees.

The union’s response to the provision creating an inspector general is mixed. Union officials want such a statute but think the position needs to be given more independence. This has yet to happen for other legislative branch agencies, which have been largely left out of a House bill that would give federal IGs more autonomy.

For years, the GAO has employed an IG, but the position is not required by statute nor overseen by Congress, said Gary Kepplinger, the agency’s general counsel. The bill’s provision mirrors those of other legislative agencies.

“Having a statutory IG gives it more permanence, and in that sense, it’s not going be subject to administrative change,” Kepplinger said. “It’s an enhancement of independence.”