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The GAO was created to be "independent of the executive departments
and under the control and direction of the Comptroller General" (Sec. 301).
Section 302 provided for the appointment of the Comptroller General and
the Assistant Comptroller General "by the President with the advice and
consent of the Senate..."
Section 303 continued by establishing the
tenure of the office, methods and causes of removal, reappointment pro
hibition, and age retirement of the Comptroller General:
Section 303. Except as hereinafter provided in this section,
The legislative history of the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921
(42 Stat. 20) necessarily requires an examination of the congressional
activity in both the 66th and 67th Congresses.
a General Accounting Office "independent of executive departments"
first introduced in 1919.
On July 14 of that year the Senate adopted a
resolution providing for a select committee to study the question of the
budget, as did the House on July 31.
Extensive hearings were held by the
House Select Committee on the Budget from September 22 to October 4, 1919,
and on a more limited scale by the Senate Select Committee at the beginning
of the next session.
Although the Senate hearings terminated on January 14,
1920, a substitute Senate bill was not reported out of committee until
April 13, 1920 and passed the Senate on May 1.
A conference report was
adopted May 27 and 29.
The bill was unexpectedly vetoed by President
Wilson on June 4, 1920 on the grounds that the President considered the
provision dealing with the removal of the Comptroller General by a
concurrent resolution of the Congress to be unconstitutional.
I am in entire sympathy with the objects of this bill and would
1/ Quoted in Darrell Hevenor Smith. The General Accounting Office: Its History, Activities, and Organization. Baltimore. Johns Hopkins Press.
Other Sources about the history of GAS include: House. Committee on Government Operations. The General Accounting Office. Report. 84th Congress, 2d session. June 6, 1956.
Richard Brown. The GAO: untapped source of congressional power. Knoxville. University of Tennessee Press. 1970. Harvey C. Mansfield. The Comptroller General. New Haven, Yale University Press. 1939.
Beginning with the new 67th Congress, bills promoting the Budget and
Accounting Act were introduced on April 11, 1921, in both chambers.
Senator McCormick's and Rep. Good's proposals, which differed as to the
placement of the budget bureau, were similar with regard to the General
Accounting Office and the Comptroller General except in two respects
tenure in office and removal of the Comptroller General.
The Senate bill (s. 1084) was reported favorably without amendment
by the Senate Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Departments on
April 25, 1921.
The bill was debated and approved with amendments by
the Senate on April 26.
House action included debate on House Resolution
74, which incorporated the Senate version, and a substitute bill (H.R.30)
on May 3 and 5, 1921.
A vote of 344 to 9 passed the amended bill in the
A Conference committee reported a compromise bill on May 20
(calendar day May 25).
The conference report (s. Doc. No. 15 and H.
Rept. No. 96) explained the difference between the chambers and the
eventual resolution regarding the removal and tenure of the Comptroller
General and the Assistant Comptroller General:
The Senate bill provides that the comptroller general and the assistant comptroller general shall hold office for seven years, but may be removed at any time for the causes named in the bill by joint resolution. The House bill provides that the comptroller general and the assistant comptroller general shall hold office during good behavior, but may be removed at any time by concurrent resolution of Congress for the causes named in the bill. The bill as agreed upon in conference fixes the terms of office of the comptroller general and assistant comptroller general at 15 years, provides for their removal at any time by joint resolution of Congress for the causes named in the bill, and further provides that no comptroller general shall serve more than one term. 2/
27 61 Cong. Rec. 1854. 67th Congress, 1st session. May 27, 1921.
Debate touching the Comptroller General may be followed in 58 Cong. Rec. 7085-93, 7128-42, 7199-7219, 7274-83, 7287-95 (House, Oct, 17-21, 1919); 59 id. 6266, 6350-3 (Senate, April 29-30, 1920); 7944-6 (House, May 29, 1920); 8625-8, 8653-7 (Senate and House on veto, June 5, 1920); 61 id. 662 (Senate, April 26, 1921); 989-91, 1089, 1851-6 (House, May 3, 5, 27, 1921).
The vote on the conference report in the House was 335 to 3 on May 27, 1921,
and President Harding signed the bill on June 10, 1921.
The debate over removal of the Comptroller General completly over
shadowed concern with the appointment process.
The consensus was that the
head of the General Accounting Office should be appointed by the President
with the advice and consent of the Senate, as were other officers of the
United States (Section 2 of Article II of the Constitution). Article II
section 2 of the Constitution, however, is ambiguous, allowing for "inferior
officers" to be appointed by the President alone, if the Congress so desig
nates an office.
It was eventually agreed that both the Assistant Comptroller
General and the Comptroller General should be constituted as officers of
the United States Government and not as "inferior officers."
Precedents for this position had been long standing.
The most important
is the Treasury Act of 1789 (1 Stat. 65), which created the Department of
the Treasury and the office of Comptroller of the Treasury, the predecessor
to the Comptroller General.
As one of five Treasury officers (the others
being Secretary, Treasurer, Register, and Auditor), the Comptroller was
appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate.
There was apparently
little or no difference of opinion as to the status of the Comptroller of
the Treasury as an officer of the United States.
Although the office of
Comptroller continued to assume new powers and responsibilities and was even divided among three comptrollers3/during the years intervening between 1789
and 1921, there was no change in the method or procedures of appointment.
37 The Act of 1817 (3 Stat. 366), enacted on March 3, 1817, provided for a second Comptroller as well as four additional auditors. Again on a March 3rd but in 1849, Congress authorized a "third comptroller," actually a Commissioner of Customs who performed the duties and exercised the powers "hitherto imposed by law upon the First Comptroller of the Treasury, relating to the receipts from customs and the accounts of collectors and other officers of the customs, or connected therewith." (9 Stat. 395, 396). By the end of the 19th Century the offices of the two formal Comptrollers and the Commissioner of Customs were re-combined into one Comptroller of the Treasury via the Dockery Act of 1898 (28 Stat. 162, 205, 207, 209). See Darrell Smith, op. cit. and Harvey Mansfield, op. cit.
Although the method of appointment does not distinguish the Comptroller
General from its predecessor Comptroller of the Treasury nor from other
officers of the Government, the methods of removal of a Com
Certain authorities in the 1921 Budget and Accounting Act provide a
defense for the Comptroller General not only against the executive, so that
the GAO "shall be independent of the executive departments,
4/ but also
against the Congress.
Whereas the President is prevented from removing the
Comptroller General, the Chief Executive had held the power to remove the
Comptroller of the Treasury, as he does for other Government officers in
the executive branch (e.g. cabinet secretaries and assistant secretaries).
The ability of the President to remove the Comptroller of the Treasury was
only briefly challenged and that was during the debate on the 1789 Treasury
James Madison entertained an amendment which would have permitted the
Comptroller of the Treasury to serve for a specific time period, "unless sooner removed by the President," 5/ but withdrew the motion during the
succeeding day's deliberation.
Madison's statement on behalf of the aborted
It will be necessary to consider the nature of this office, to enable us to come to a right decision on the subject; in analyzing its properties, we shall easily discover they are not purely of an executive nature. It seems to me that they partake of a judiciary quality as well as executive; perhaps the latter obtains in the greatest degree. The principal duty seems to be deciding upon the lawfulness and justice of the claims and accounts subsisting between the United States and particular citizens: this partakes strongly of the judicial character, and there may be strong reasons why an officer of this kind should not hold his office at the pleasure of the executive branch of the Government. 6/
42 Stat. 23.
5/ Quoted in Harvey Mansfield, op. cit. p. 28.
6. Ibid., p. 28