Walker: Time to Reassess Policy Process

Posted October 8, 2004 at 5:34pm

Lawmakers in both chambers have spent much time in recent weeks discussing whether the Pentagon’s intelligence activities should be managed by a national intelligence director or remain under the purview of the Defense Department.

While such wonky debate doesn’t usually make the front page of the nation’s newspapers, this issue found political legs. And Government Accountability Office head David Walker, for one, hopes that rethinking the federal bureaucracy stays on Congress’ agenda long after the impetus of the 9/11 commission fades.

Following the election and before the president (whoever he may be) submits his budget in January, Walker intends to present Congress and the executive branch with a comprehensive assessment of a government he believes is stuck somewhere in the middle of the previous century. The comptroller general hopes the study incites lawmakers to rethink and literally re-form the federal structure at its most fundamental level. While not a blueprint for policy, the study aims to provide an outline of what’s wrong: in Walker’s words “an accumulation of policies, programs, functions and activities” that is “unaffordable and unsustainable.”

A Citizen’s Bureaucrat

On its face, GAO’s latest undertaking smacks of Washington-speak, mere bureaucratic reorganization akin to changing how Congressional committees oversee the intelligence agencies. The Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States and its best-selling report have elevated such esoteric issues to water-cooler discussions and given the 9/11 panel’s recommendations national prominence, at least for now.

But what Walker and his agency hope to provoke with their tentatively named “21st Century Challenges” report is in many ways broader, more ambitious and possibly more likely to be politicized than even the 9/11 commission’s aims, as it seeks to do to the entire federal government what that panel did for intelligence reform.

In an interview, Walker said that the policy debate “rightfully belongs to elected officials.” But his agency is looking to ask the right questions.

“My personal view is it is probably going to take a generation for us to effectively address these issues,” Walker said. “But we must start now.”

What GAO seeks is nothing less than a reconstruction of legislating from the bottom up. Walker wants to challenge the assumptions that went into federal policy decades ago.

“My personal belief, and the evidence I think shows, that much of the federal government is based upon conditions and factors that existed when the policy programs and activities were put into place, but they have never been subject to reassessment — nor have they been assessed against future trends and challenges,” he said.

In other words, Walker would like Congress to reconsider what constitutes the starting point for every appropriations and authorization bill it writes.

“To a great extent, … there is kind of a presumption that the base is OK,” Walker explained. “The base is not OK. The base is unaffordable and unsustainable, given known demographic trends.”

If it sounds like he’s talking about the famed “third rail” in American politics, reforming entitlements, he is. But he’s also addressing what might be described as off the tracks, because the base of government is also a political base — Social Security checks, military installations and post offices, just for starters — that recent Congresses have shown very little stomach for tinkering with, let alone subjecting to a complete overhaul.

Private Support, Public Silence

The political challenges aren’t really Walker’s business. GAO is Congress’ nonpartisan study aide; more than 90 percent of the agency’s work is done at the direct request of Members. The rest, a small fraction but an “increasingly important part” of GAO’s work, deals with what what Walker deems “foresight.”

This latest effort clearly falls into the latter category, and Walker stated he’s received nothing but support.

“I have no opposition to this. I have had a number of people make positive comments,” he said.

But theoretical support from Capitol Hill doesn’t always translate into on-the-ground enthusiasm.

Privately, many if not most Members and staff agree with Walker’s repeated dire pronouncements about the country’s fiscal condition. In a separate effort related to the upcoming report, Walker has spent much of the past year railing against structural deficits that he maintains cannot simply be outgrown even with a robust economic engine. In nearly every speech he makes, he points out that the nation’s $12 trillion debt translates to $24,000 for “every man, woman and child.”

Walker has put the blame at once squarely on every elected official and yet on no one in particular. But his outspokenness has been met with some unease, expressed by one staffer that Walker had gotten “too big for his britches.”

“First,” Walker said, “I have never heard a Member say that. I have heard some staff say that, and I respect staff tremendously. I have never heard a Member say that, and there’s a fundamental difference.

“Yes, I am fully aware that I work for the Congress. But I also have a professional responsibility as a certified public accountant,” he said.”

“Privately, there is a tremendous amount of agreement as to what I am doing and why I am doing it. Publically, there is either support or silence. Realistically, this is an issue that is of critical importance to our country that is going to have be addressed irrespective of the results in November. I don’t want it to be politicized.”

But in this town, politics is the only way.

And Walker has occasionally stepped on the wrong toes.

Last year he irked key lawmakers by firing William Scanlon, who had worked closely with Members on complex health care issues over the years. A bipartisan group of lawmakers — including Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and ranking member Max Baucus (D-Mont.), and House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) — wrote Walker demanding Scanlon’s reinstatement. He refused, but eventually named Scanlon to the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission, a panel that reports to Congress on Medicare reimbursement.

In the meantime, Grassley and Baucus put holds on a Walker-backed bill, since passed and signed into law, to rename and reorganize the then-named General Accounting Office. The holds were eventually released, and the tension seems to have at least diminished. Baucus recently said he was “not unhappy” with the way the resolution.

The ostensibly noncontroversial bill didn’t exactly sail through the other chamber either. Forty-two Republicans and one Democrat voted against the measure in the House. A spokesman for Budget Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa), who voted against the bill, commented that although it was “not a slight” against Walker, it was “somewhat ironic” that the bill required a budget point of order given that the head of GAO had been publicly reminding Congress to rein in spending.

“Walker has been out there railing Congress, and we agree with him. And his own agency has to get a budget point of order to give his agency money?” his spokesman said at the time.

Walker said the whole thing was a misunderstanding, based on incorrect scoring assumptions made by the Congressional Budget Office, and he later resolved the differences with Nussle. “The irony is that our bill will save the government money, not cost the government,” Walker said.

Walker also defended his agency more generally, pointing out that GAO reaps $87 in financial benefits for every dollar it is appropriated. “We are very proud of our return on investment.”

Serving Congress, Walker said, “is our number one priority institutionally, and my number one priority personally.”

Duel Hats

But in many ways Walker’s responsibilities extend beyond simply serving the institution’s needs. Although GAO is squarely a legislative branch agency, Walker’s title is actually comptroller general of the United States. As such, he believes he has an obligation to help ensure the country’s fiscal health. The duel nature of his job requires him play two distinct parts, and fulfilling the latter role occasionally offends the political sensibilities of the former.

“The reason I am doing it is that the Congress decided that the GAO should audit the consolidated financial statements of the government. I am the signing partner on that audit report,” Walker said. “There have been a number of accountability failures that have occurred in the private sector. I am bound and determined to make sure that does not occur in the federal sector.”

He claimed only one Member, whom he would not name, has expressed concern about his outspokenness. “The one person who said something I am not sure had all the facts,” Walker said, adding that he sought a meeting to explain his position and why he has taken it so publically.

“Frankly, I look at this as not just a professional responsibility. I look at it as a responsibility as a citizen and as a father and a grandfather.”

But does railing against the burgeoning fiscal imbalance and talk of remaking government from the bottom up in his capacity as head of a small, if influential, agency mask greater ambitions for Walker himself? He insists no.

“I don’t deal with hypothetical,” Walker said of accepting another opportunity if it presented itself. Although streamlining and restructuring GAO for what he deems a government of the 21st century could put him in a position to perhaps export that effort to another agency, he said he intends to serve the remaining nine years in his 15-year term.

“It’s a very unique job. It has the longest term of any position in government,” Walker said. “You have the opportunity to work for the Congress in a professional, objective nonpartisan, nonideological basis. I have the opportunity to work with and lead over 3,000 people who are at least as good if not better than the private sector.

“Our scope is everything the United States government is doing or thinking of doing anywhere in the world. I do think there is a tremendous need to transform how the government does business,” he continued. “I feel very good about how much we’ve been able to accomplish.”