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Comptroller General’s Job Is a Balancing Act

Second of two parts

Today’s comptroller general performs a balancing act on a tightrope that stretches between Congress and the executive branch — with the Government Accountability Office in the middle!

The current inclusion of the GAO and other members of the accountability community at the Recovery Act table with the White House is actually an exception rather than the rule to the GAO’s independent and objective role in which it may be said to be doing its best work when both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are unhappy about something the GAO has discovered and plainly states in testimony or in a report.

The nominee for comptroller general must possess a special skill set to work with Congress and an entirely different one to work with the executive branch — and in both cases, despite highly analytical training and sharply delineated focus of the people who work inside the GAO, the comptroller general must be compatible with leaders in each branch of government, while being respected for his or her independent judgment. Pressures come from each direction, sometimes simultaneously, and often converge over the stand that the comptroller general must take to ensure that the GAO’s work, which is characteristically perceived as critical and questioning of current practices and sometimes specific officials, is quality work.

To a certain extent this reflects the origins of the GAO, which was created with the president’s Office of Management and Budget — in the 1921 Budget and Accounting Act — and shares an important role of supporting and advancing management improvement across the federal departments and agencies. Examples of this mission include the early years, when rows of the GAO’s “green eyeshade— employees checked vouchers of federal spending, to President Harry Truman relying on the GAO to catch war profiteers during World War II, to Comptroller General David Walker suing former Vice President Dick Cheney for refusing to turn over records of a White House national energy policy group. Yet this relationship has evolved and expanded to reflect the experience and strengths of each new comptroller general, and ironically, in light of the reputation that the GAO is the “investigative arm of the Congress,— depends on the comptroller general and the GAO’s relationships with the executive branch.

It is part of the proactive tool kit that a comptroller general must have and use regularly, and in the case of each of the past three comptroller generals — Elmer Staats, Charles Bowsher and David Walker — was made possible by their federal experience and often deep pre-existing relationships at leadership levels outside of the GAO. Bowsher has noted his practice of “inviting new Cabinet agency leaders to come meet with me at GAO.— Walker also met with Cabinet and other agency leaders and continued a GAO tradition of advisory forums to enable executive branch leaders, policy experts, elected officials and others from inside and outside government to meet and discuss important issues.

Such relationships also bring results, as evidenced by the focus that then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Andrew Cuomo brought to the successful effort to get HUD off the GAO High-Risk List working in part directly with Walker.

The most natural and reflexive focus of the Congressional Comptroller General Commission, which is helping to identify candidates for the comptroller general post, is to search for someone who works for and whose job it is to support Congress. While the commission members and their staff no doubt have an instinctive sense of what is important, their decisions are being made on behalf of their colleagues, as well as the taxpayer, and therefore may be best served by applying an objective set of criteria that will serve the interests of the institution of Congress.

To work with Capitol Hill, the next comptroller general of the United States must:

• Be nonpartisan but not politically blind.

• Possess political savvy and personal knowledge and experience about Congress.

• Care about the institution of Congress.

• Have the presence and the ability to establish effective one-on-one relationships with Senators, Representatives and others.

• Have excellent communication skills.

• Be committed to educating and expanding the knowledge of all in Congress and their staffs.

• Be a thought leader who can grasp complex issues, organize seemingly disparate facts and events, and help frame approaches to address public needs.

• Help Congress succeed at its responsibilities — in authorizing, appropriating, overseeing and in effective representation of their states and districts.

• Capable of saying “yes— and “no— to Congress.

Perhaps most important, the nominee for comptroller general of the United States must emerged unscathed by politics.

Steven L. Katz served as counsel to the then-Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and as director and senior adviser to then-Comptroller General David Walker. Jonathan D. Breul is the executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously worked for the Office of Management and Budget, is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s graduate Public Policy Institute.

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