GAO's new name suggests loss of political objectivity

August 12, 2004|By Matt Buck

SO WHAT'S IN a name, anyway? It seems that in the case of one federal agency, the answer is quite a lot.

The GAO, that government department that's always issuing reports for Congress on this or that federal program or expenditure, has a new name. Those three initials, formerly standing for General Accounting Office, now mean Government Accountability Office. David M. Walker, the comptroller general of the United States, sought the name change for the agency he runs because, as he put it, "our past name did not accurately reflect who we are and what we do." Mr. Walker points out that the agency is not and has never really been "in the accounting business."

Mr. Walker is indeed correct that the most common definition of accounting - for example, the financial kind - does not describe the bulk of activities at the GAO. The agency conducts audits, but they are mostly based on personal interviews and vast anecdotal research.

While the old name might be construed as misleading, Mr. Walker's insistence on a new one potentially sacrifices the broad respect and well-balanced institutional image the GAO earned over its 85-year existence. The wide acceptance for the agency and its work comes not from its name but from the painstaking objectivity of its findings in widely publicized reports on some of the most divisive issues of the day.

Ironically, in its role as the research arm of the Congress, the GAO is positioned at the beck and call of the most politically charged branch of government. The secret to the agency's success, and apparent lack of partisan bias, is time. Six to 12 months may pass between a congressman's request for a GAO study and the time the report is issued for the public record.

To some, this may smack of government inefficiency. But, in fact, the passage of that time allows for both a more accurate investigation of the issue under scrutiny and, perhaps even more important, time for the political winds surrounding the issue to die down. This, in turn, significantly eases the pressure on the agency if the report is seen to favor the view of its sponsor. And as the 9/11 commission report proves, endless pages of findings and data rarely support only one agenda.

The General Accounting Office title carried with it a vague benignity, suggesting mild federal oversight without real teeth, or at least teeth that bite only when provoked. And this was fitting for an agency created before the New Deal, when American society was perhaps more libertarian than liberal and the role of the government much smaller than it is today.

The new name, Government Accountability Office, in addition to being a mouthful, indicates a decidedly more aggressive, buck-stops-here attitude that its predecessor did not.

In an era when the rhetoric, if not the reality, of downsizing government is the political trend, the new name will no doubt satisfy those who feel a need for a government watchdog. But a nod to temporal ideology in the naming of a federal agency potentially sacrifices that organization's objectivity in discerning how successfully the government does what it does.

It is indeed possible that subjects under audit by the GAO will be less forthcoming now that they are being held "accountable," when before they were merely accounted for.

Matt Buck teaches social studies at the Gilman School in Baltimore.

Columnist Clarence Page is on vacation.

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