David Walker, Comptroller General of the United States and head of the Government Accountability Office, recently announced his resignation effective Wednesday. Walker’s action should trigger an immediate search for his successor.
GAO will celebrate its 100th anniversary in just 13 years — within the term of office of the next Comptroller General. One constant over time has been its essential role in assuring the sound operations of government — leveling the playing field between the legislative and executive branches of government. GAO and the position of Comptroller General were established to increase Congressional power and enable Congress to fulfill its constitutional checks-and-balances role.
Indeed, GAO isn’t just the investigative arm of Congress. Most GAO reports go beyond the question of whether federal money is being spent appropriately to ask whether federal policies and programs are meeting their objectives and the needs of society. The increased complexity of government and society demand this sophistication.
The urgency for Congress to act results from the unique and time- consuming process by which the Comptroller General is selected. It is pursuant to an unusual statutory arrangement developed to counteract the constitutional conundrum in which the president appoints the head of a legislative branch agency.
The Walker Nomination
The two-year hiatus between the end of predecessor Charles Bowsher’s term as Comptroller General and the beginning of Walker’s term marked the second-longest period without a confirmed Comptroller General. The delay prompted Congress to consider, but did not act upon, making the position exclusively a legislative branch officer.
It could easily occur again. After all, is it possible for administrations to value a GAO with strong leadership and oversight as much as Congress does?
The Walker nomination had many twists and turns. When Congress began its search for candidates to recommend to President Bill Clinton, Walker’s name appeared on a list with about 60 other candidates. The timeline for the nomination of Walker is illustrative of the effect a contentious political climate has on the selection process:
• On Jan. 22, 1998, nearly 16 months after Bowsher completed his term, the Congressional commission sent the names of three individuals to Clinton.
• Independently, six days later, Democratic members of the commission submitted four additional names.
• In March 1998, Clinton rejected the commission’s recommendations with no stated reasons, and, as the law permits, asked the Republican-controlled Congress to send him more names.
• A political standoff resulted between Republicans and Democrats and was not resolved until later that year.
• Nearly 10 months lapsed before the president submitted a nomination based on the Congressional commission’s recommendation, and this occurred in the final weeks of the legislative calendar still requiring hearings, committee reports and a confirmation vote.
• On Oct. 5, Clinton nominates Walker (who was among the original names). An Oct. 7 hearing drew bipartisan complaints of a lack of time for becoming acquainted with the nominee and for deliberation. On Oct. 9, the committee reported the nominee out favorably. The Senate confirmed Walker on Oct. 21, 1998.
The Lessons Learned
Until there is a Senate-confirmed replacement for the Comptroller General, even the most competent career leadership of GAO leaves Congress with a weaker hand. This is particularly true with regard to GAO’s need, acting on behalf of Congress, to gain access to executive agency information.
Perhaps the high-water mark in recent years came when Walker fought Vice President Cheney’s decision to withhold documents concerning the White House’s National Energy Policy Development Group. Although GAO lost in the courts, the public recognized the Comptroller General as a vigilant steward of accountability. Arguably, however, Cheney’s ability to avoid accountability emboldened this administration’s broader efforts to delay and diminish the access that GAO enjoyed for many years. The longer that GAO goes without a confirmed Comptroller General, the more vulnerable it becomes.
Even though the consensus view on Capitol Hill is that no nominees will be recommended until after Jan. 20, 2009, it is important now to organize the commission and its staff.
The institutional interests of Congress and the executive branch make the selection of a Comptroller General a priority regardless of who is elected president. The first step begins with Congress and should be taken immediately.
Steven L. Katz served as counsel to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and as director and senior adviser to Comptroller General David Walker. He is the author of “Lion Taming: Working Successfully With Leaders, Bosses and Other Tough Customers.” Jonathan Breul is the executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously worked for the Office of Management and Budget.