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Congress Begins to Review Applications for GAO Job

Updated: 2:13 p.m.

House and Senate leaders have just begun the search for a new comptroller general, more than a year after David Walker left the helm of the Government Accountability Office for the private sector.

If the past is any indicator, it will take months for Congress to develop a list of nominees to send to the president. But officials already have a pool of applicants and have begun reviewing their information, according to a memo obtained by Roll Call.

That pool is diverse, though small, according to several sources. It includes public officials, high-profile attorneys and at least two people with experience inside the agency.

Whoever the president appoints will take on a watchdog agency that has gained new importance during an economic downturn and two costly wars.

Back in the mid-1990s, Republicans claimed the agency was biased and overfunded. But in the past few years, its popularity has grown — along with requests for its often-critical reports on everything from health care to defense spending.

The agency’s more than 3,000 analysts testify at hundreds of hearings and write countless reports on government programs and spending. And while their work is nonpartisan, it can also be harsh, often setting the tone for how Congress tackles particular issues.

Since Walker left on March 12, 2008, that work has been under the direction of acting Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, a career GAO employee who was Walker’s second-in-command.

Dodaro is well-liked at the agency and is throwing his hat in the ring for the permanent job. But he could face an upward battle: Since the GAO was created in 1921, the president has never chosen someone from inside the agency.

He also faces some tough competitors, among them Rhode Island Auditor General Ernie Almonte, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen, D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi and former Assistant Comptroller General Ira Goldstein.

All would bring a different set of goals to the GAO, shaping how it would run and what it would prioritize.

Under Walker, an outspoken fiscal conservative, the agency was streamlined and focused on critical oversight of government spending.

During his almost 10-year tenure, he became a controversial figure, once filing a lawsuit to compel Vice President Dick Cheney to disclose his private advisers on an energy task force. A court eventually ruled in Cheney’s favor, and Walker never appealed.

Inside the agency, Walker cut positions, closed several field offices and implemented a market-based, pay-for-performance pay raise system. Disgruntled analysts ended up forming GAO’s first union.

In an interview last week, Walker said the position requires the ability to work with Congressional overseers while also making tough and unpopular decisions.

“You need someone who has got a relevant profession and leadership experience and who is committed to doing the right thing, even though it may not be popular,— he said.

Applicants gave a variety of reasons for wanting the job and different ideas on the GAO’s future.

William Arnone, a partner at Ernst & Young, called it a “remarkable office— that has the opportunity to re-evaluate landmark legislation and tell Congress what is and isn’t working.

“I think the GAO is the only one that can go back and say, This is actually what has been accomplished,’— he said.

Arnone specializes in personal financial counseling, working with large corporations on restructuring their benefit plans.

Auditing, he said, must be independent, and the GAO “can’t be an adversary but also can’t be cozy.—

That balance is difficult to achieve when the comptroller general is chosen through a political — though bipartisan — process. In the past, the two parties have sparred over whom to nominate, dragging the process along for years.

The comptroller general also must have “unimpeachable integrity,— said Goldstein, the former assistant comptroller general who is applying for the top position this time around.

Goldstein left the agency in 1991 and now works at Deloitte Consulting as a consultant for agencies conducting public sector work.

GAO’s next focus, he said, should be on government programs.

“Clearly we are going to be facing significant budget challenges as the administration — as any administration — tries to figure out what’s working and what’s not,— he said. “The GAO’s ability to help Congress figure that out is going to be really key over the next 10 to 15 years.—

Arnone and Goldstein said they had already turned in their extensive applications, which include biographical and policy questions.

Now the selecting committee will review the applications and set up interviews. Though House and Senate leaders are on the committee, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has delegated much of the work to Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.).

Oversight ranking member Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is also on the selecting committee, along with Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and ranking member Susan Collins (R-Maine).

The committee will submit at least three names to President Barack Obama, who can choose from the list or appoint someone else to a 15-year term.

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