GAO Begs Hill for Money

WASHINGTON (07/19/2000) - Will somebody feed the watchdog?

After almost a decade of personnel cuts and budget reductions, the U.S. General Accounting Office, Congress' watchdog, has developed a lean and hungry look.

Its staff has shrunk from 5,325 to 3,275, its budget has slid from more than US$400 million to slightly more than $300 million a year. Even so, its workload has not diminished.

The agency, which conducts investigations, performs audits and analyzes issues for Congress, is now asking lawmakers for help.

Without some assistance, GAO is "not well-positioned to do our job in the future," Comptroller General David Walker told the House Government Management Information and Technology Subcommittee Tuesday.

The agency that blew the whistle when the U.S. Internal Revenue Service wasted $3 billion on a computer modernization that failed, called attention to numerous government computer systems riddled with security problems and has badgered scores of agencies about waste and ineptitude, finds itself struggling.

Deep budget cuts between 1992 and 1997 forced the agency to stop hiring and start firing. As a result, GAO is top-heavy with staff members who are nearing retirement age, has a shortage of younger workers and lacks certain scientific and technically trained experts, including information technology specialists, Walker said.

Meanwhile, "requests for GAO's services have never been higher," he said. The agency receives about 50 requests each week to conduct studies for congressional committee chairmen, ranking members and individual members of Congress.

The demands are expected to continue to grow in an era when Congress is pressing for accountability in government. Walker said GAO returns $57 to the government for every $1 spent on it.

In 1999, for example, GAO recommendations yielded $20 billion in "direct financial benefits" to the federal government, Walker said.

Even while piling on the work, Congress has remained quite penurious. The Senate proposes a modest 2.5 percent budget increase for 2001, but the House proposes a 2 percent cut.

It is hard to attract good staff members when the workload is increasing and job security is declining, Walker said.

As part of an effort to turn GAO around, Walker asked for authority to let retirement-age workers shift from full-time to part-time work without losing access to their pensions. He also asked Congress to help newly graduated employees pay off college debts as an incentive to join GAO. Most new hires have master's and doctoral degrees, and many have substantial debt, he noted.

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