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GAO Tells Congress It Needs 151 More Staffers

Correction Appended

The Government Accountability Office needs more analysts to handle an increasing workload and a constant backlog, agency officials told lawmakers last week.

With 3,100 employees, the watchdog agency is at its lowest staffing level in its history — a result of budget constraints and past downsizing.

Now GAO officials are asking Congress to fund 151 new positions to help with steadily increasing Congressional requests and new responsibilities. It’s a sizable chunk of the $38 million increase the agency wants — a budget hike that represents a 7.5 percent gain over last year’s $500 million budget.

Those new employees would have plenty to do, officials said. So far this year, there are 20 percent more requests for reports than there were at the same time last year.

Right now, for each request received, the agency has to decide whether to accept it or relegate it to its sizable waiting list.

“Our people are working at an incredible pace,” acting Comptroller General Gene Dodaro said at a budget hearing Thursday. “We’re stretched and what I’m concerned about is that the quality of what we do for Congress is going to suffer.”

Back in 1992, more than 5,000 employees worked at the GAO. But those numbers sharply declined in 1994, when Republicans took over Congress and expressed concern that the agency was biased and overfunded.

Today, lawmakers often applaud the agency for what they say is its well-researched reports and nonpartisan approach. At Thursday’s hearing, both Democratic and Republican members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch repeatedly praised the GAO.

But, as she has at every hearing this year, Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) warned GAO officials that money was tight and the agency needed to separate the “needs from the wants.”

In the past five years, she said, the agency has reported increasing productivity. For fiscal 2007, the GAO reported that it saved the government more than $45 billion and jump-started more than 1,300 improvements in government operations.

“It seems like you’re doing just fine,” she said. “Why do you need to add 151 to staff?”

Officials say GAO has been able to make do with a small staff by working closely with lawmakers to set priorities. But analysts and officials also say that the behind-the-scenes impact is unequivocal.

For years, GAO officials have negotiated every request with lawmakers and are sometimes forced to temporarily drop a report to work on something more pressing. While requests that are accepted used to take two and a half months to begin, that time is now closer to four months. Reports on more popular issues, such as health care, take closer to six months.

And while the agency used to accept requests from individual Members, that is no longer the case. First comes statutory mandates — certain legislation requires a GAO study — and then requests from committee chairmen and ranking members. There’s simply no time for anything else — or even time for all the committee requests.

GAO Chief Administrative Officer Sallyanne Harper said the agency requested 151 additional slots partly because that was the number of employees it could absorb in one year.

The increase would alleviate some pressure on growing workloads. And Dodaro predicted that a bump in staffing would be “a terrific boost in morale and productivity.”

Certainly, the work shows no sign of decreasing. A new president and new Congress will mean more GAO briefings and reports, and proposed legislation includes more than 600 potential mandates for the GAO. That’s 86 percent more than during a similar period in the 109th Congress.

Dodaro said the extra work comes from two causes: “I think we’re delivering a good value — people know a good value when they see it — and I think Congress is facing more demands.”

Correction: April 14, 2008

The article incorrectly stated that it now takes four months for the agency to complete a report. In fact, it now takes GAO four months to begin a report, compared with two and a half months to begin a report in the past.

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