THE General Accounting Office (GAO) is a lightning rod of sorts on Capitol Hill. Supporters consider the investigative agency an unfairly maligned messenger. Critics contend that it's an inefficient and biased bureaucracy that panders to the congressional committee chairmen who control its purse strings.
In October, the House Government Operations Committee will hold the first oversight hearings into the GAO's operations in eight years. It will examine the alleged bias, timeliness, and leaks of GAO reports.
Supporters worry that hearings could have a chilling effect on the agency that has weeded out billions of dollars in executive-branch waste, fraud, and abuse. But for critics, like Rep. Dennis Hastert (R) of Illinois, hearings are long overdue.
``The GAO makes a less-than-honest effort to find out all the facts,'' says Representative Hastert. ``They've become lap dogs for what the majority wants.''
Hastert and other Republican critics say there's a palpable sense on the Hill that Democrats get better service from the GAO than Republicans in both the quantity and the quality of the agency's work. Many analysts say that's to be expected.
The GAO is mandated by Congress to oversee executive-branch operations. For the last 12 years, a predominantly Democratic Congress has ordered investigations of two Republican administrations.
``We're the auditor of the executive branch, so it's very understandable the Democrats would ask for reports on the Republicans,'' says GAO spokesman Cleve Corlett. ``But I've also got a drawer full of reports that Democrats aren't happy about. We just call them as we see them.''
Supporters contend that the GAO is one of the most balanced and cost-effective agencies in the government. In 1991, the GAO weeded out more than $33 billion of fraud and waste, ranging from cost overruns of more than $500 million in the Superconducting Super Collider project to the tens of millions of dollars prominent universities were billing the government for yachts, private homes, and decorating expenses.
Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Committee on Government Operations, points out that that is a return of about $82 dollars for every $1 dollar invested in the GAO.
``[Critics] either do not understand the importance of its function ... or they believe it's in their political party's self-interest to avoid further revelations about the fraud, waste, and abuse that has plagued the past two presidential administrations,'' Conyers says.
With a budget of $435 million and 4,900 employees, the GAO produces more than 1,500 reports annually. Eighty percent are requested by committee chairman or ranking members; the rest are initiated by the agency, or mandated by statute.
GAO investigations range from the House bank audit that documented overdrafts by dozens of congressmen to the analysis of the Commodities Credit Corporation loan program that identified how Iraq's Saddam Hussein used it to subsidize his military buildup.
``I think the GAO has maintained a strong reputation for telling the truth, regardless of party,'' says Prof. Paul Light of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. ``If the GAO is doing its job, it's always going to be on the razor's edge, it's always going to make people mad.''
But Republican critics contend that the agency often goes beyond its purview. For example, New York's Senate delegation asked the GAO whether the Navy was justified in choosing to buy a new F/A-18 jet built in Missouri over an upgraded version of the F-14 manufactured in New York. The GAO duly made the comparison, then concluded that the Navy didn't need to purchase either one.
``The initial request asked them to compare two jets. They were clearly defined parameters the GAO went beyond,'' said David Ayers, an aide to Missouri Sen. Christopher (Kit) Bond (R).
Critics on both sides of the aisle are also concerned about the length of time GAO takes to produce a report. It can range from several months to several years.
``They have a process of reviewing documents that's astonishing to me,'' says a veteran Democratic staffer. ``The review often takes as long as the development of the actual report. How can that be?''
After each report is completed, it's given to an independent team of evaluators that ensures that every statement of fact is independently referenced. Then there is a legal review and an accounting check. Then, if requested, the agency under investigation has an opportunity to review it.
Supporters contend that the GAO's attention to detail and balance is one of its strengths. Critics contend that it slows the legislative process.
``Agencies can delay a report for months, but we've only got one year in the budget process,'' says one Hill staff member. ``Without the hard facts, I'm blowing in the wind.''
Mr. Corlett would also prefer to do away with the agency comment period. First because it usually adds three months to the process, and second because of leaks.
``Almost every leak of one of our reports usually occurs at the agency where it's been sent,'' Corlett says. ``It's either done by dissidents who want the information out or others who release it on a Friday night so it will only get into a few papers.''
With the change from a Republican to a Democratic executive branch, some analysts predict a change in the nature of the complaints against the GAO. Critics are waiting to see if the agency will be just as aggressive weeding out waste in Democrat-controlled agencies. GAO's supporters are looking for a change in the critics.
``When GAO criticisms come out now, they're going to be about government departments run by a Democratic organization'' says another veteran Hill staff member.
``In about a year or so, we're probably going to start hearing a lot about just how wonderful and objective they are.''