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On October 2, 1975, I appeared before the Subcommittee on Reports, Accounting, and Management to give testimony on four bills relating to the Office of the Comptroller General of the United States and the General Accounting Office.
One of these bills, S. 2206, proposes a major change in the method of appointment of the Comptroller General and the Deputy Comptroller General from the President of the United States, with confirmation by the Senate, to the Speaker of the House and the President pro tempore of the Senate, upon recommendation of the House and Senate Committees on Government Operations. It would also provide for removal by either the Senate or the House by simple resolution. Another, s. 2268, would provide a means for the Courts to have an opportunity to rule on matters involving the legality of Government expenditures when there is a disagreement between the Comptroller General and the Attorney General. It also would provide authority for the General Accounting Office to insure access to information which by law the Office is entitled but which has not been made available by either the executive branch or by individuals and organizations outside of the Federal Government.
This letter addresses itself to the points made in your statement at the beginning of the hearing which, upon reflection, I do not believe I dealt with fully in my presentation. I am concerned by your statement that "I have no quarrel with granting him (the Comptroller General] these powers if he were under the control of the Congress, but as an 'independent agency'--independent of the executive and independent of the Congress--a fourth branch of the Government, I have serious concern.
This Office has never contended, by implication or otherwise, that it is independent of the legislative branch. The General Accounting Office was considered by some as an "independent agency" for roughly the first 25 years of its existence, even though the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 creating the Office clearly provided that the Office would provide assistance to committees of the Congress having to do with revenue, expenditures, and appropriations. It also provided that reports made by the Office would be transmitted to the Congress. It is true that the Office under the 1921 Act and under the Accounting and Auditing Act of 1950 was
delegated important powers which may be regarded as "executive" in nature. The se have to do with the duty of prescribing of principles and standards for accounting to be observed by the executive agencies, the approval of accounting systems, and, most importantly, the responsibility to "settle agency accounts," that is, the responsibility to take exception to payments made by agencies of the executive branch which the Comptroller General deems to be contrary to law.
The settlement of accounts function is especially important since it provides for an authoritative agency which can independently take action to make certain that the will of the legislative branch is carried out in the vital area of expenditure of appropriated funds, recognizing of course that any ruling by the Comptroller General can be overturned by the courts or by action of the Congress in clarifying, modifying, or reaffirming the original legislative intent. Thus, the Comptroller General decisions are final, subject to such review. The independence in taking these actions does not mean that the Comptroller General and the General Accounting Office are not a part of the legislative branch but it does mean that the actions taken are not by direction or with express approval of Congress or its committees.
Many have argued--notably President Roosevelt's Committee on Administrative Management and the Task Force on Fiscal, Budgeting, and Accounting Activities of the first Hoover Commission--that the functions of prescribing accounting principles and standards, the approval of accounting systems, and the authority to settle accounts are executive in nature and therefore should be transferred to the Treasury Department. The Hoover Commission itself recommended that only the duty of prescribing accounting systems and procedures be transferred to an Accountant General in the Treasury Department. The Congress responded to these recommendations in the negative and strongly reaffirmed the importance of retaining in an officer responsible to the Congress these responsibilities on the grounds that they were fundamental to Congress' control of the purse strings. While these responsibilities may be executive in nature, that is, directly bearing on the execution of programs of the executive branch, I strongly believe that the retention of control of information and methods of reporting of obligations and expenditures and the authority to pass on the legality of expenditures in an officer responsible to the Congress is fundamental and essential to Congress' control of appropriations and expenditures.
I stress the above because of your statement that GAO claims to be independent of both the executive and the Congress. I would like to make certain that there is no confusion on this point. We are clearly a part of the legislative branch albeit we have been delegated certain authorities and responsibilities which some have argued are executive in nature. We see no problem in having authorities of this type delegated to this Office.
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As a practical matter, we do not see how the Congress could exercise these controls except through an independent agency of the Congress.
I believe that the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act in which you played such an important role provides us with a very recent confirmation of Congress' intent in this respect. This is done by placing upon the Comptroller General the authority to develop, establish, and maintain (in cooperation with the Secretary of the Treasury, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and the Director of the Congressional Budget Office), standard terminology, definitions, classification, and codes for Federal fiscal, budgetary, and program-related data and information (title VIII), and the authority to pass on the legality of impoundments made by the executive (title x), including the authority to take action to test the legality of the impoundments in the courts on his own initiative and with his own counsel. As you are aware, one suit of this type has been brought with the result that the impoundment has been released without the necessity of a decision in the courts.
Finally, let me reiterate that reference to the General Accounting Office as a "fourth branch of the Government" is entirely alien to my own thinking. I have never used this term. On the contrary, it has been a firm policy commitment on my part to make the General Accounting Office more relevant to the needs of the Congress. I have supported a number of legislative enactments to this effect since 1966, including the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 and the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974. The direct assistance provided by this Office in the form of special studies to the Congress as a whole and to committees and to individual members has increased from approximately 8 percent of a professional staff of 2,400 in 1966 to 34 percent of a professional staff of approximately 3,700 currently. In addition, I believe that our selfinitiated work is far more relevant to the needs of the Congress than at any prior time in GAO's history. The increasing use of our reports in floor debate, in committee deliberations, and in committee reports, attest, I believe, to at least some success in achieving our objective in this regard.
Basic to the usefulness of this Office by the Congress from the beginning has been, and continues to be, the recognition--in and outside the Federal Government--of the essentiality of a strictly nonpolitical organization staffed by professional civil servants and headed by a Comptroller General and a Deputy Comptroller General who are removed from political life--and, by virtue of the length of their appointment, most likely to terminate their careers with the expiration of their appointments. Congress took great pains in 1921 to establish an office with these attributes of independence and nonpartisanship. These attributes are at least as important today as they were in 1921. They are not inconsistent with the need for an agency which can support and be responsive to the
needs of the Congress for assistance and to carry out delegated authority in a fair, objective and judicial manner.
I appreciated very much your arranging for the hearing and hope that these additional thoughts--which I hope you will include as part of the record of the hearing--may be helpful in clarifying the central issues which seemed to be of concern in your statement.
The following report provides information about the history and inde
pendence of the Office of the Comptroller General of the United States,
the director of the General Accounting Office (GAO).
Included in the
analysis are a legislative history of the statute which created the office,
a review of the functions which aid the independence of the office, and a
brief history of the appointments of Comptrollers General.
The Office of Comptroller General, as director of the General Accounting
Office, was established by the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 (31 U.S.C.
Title III provided for establishment of the GAO and delineated the
authorities, and status of the Comptroller General.
abolished and transferred to the GAO the duties and remaining personnel of
the office of the Comptroller of the Treasury, the Assistant Comptroller
of the Treasury, and the six Auditors of the Treasury, effective July 1,
The GAO also received the property, documents, and materials of