Search for GAO Chief Stuck in Neutral

Posted September 11, 2009 at 6:21pm

Last week marked 18 months since David Walker left the helm of the Government Accountability Office, but House and Senate leaders have not yet sent their recommendations for a new comptroller general to the White House, and it’s unclear when they will do so.

A spokeswoman for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is helping lead the search process, declined to comment on the joint selection committee’s progress. But several candidates for the position said they haven’t heard anything from the panel since it held interviews several months ago.

The wait is not entirely unexpected: When former Comptroller General Charles Bowsher ended his 15-year term in 1996, the spot remained vacant for more than two years. Before then, vacancies typically lasted less than a year.

“It just gets, I think, bogged down in all the big issues of the moment,— Bowsher said. “Right now, health care and the budget have just become such hot issues that those issues get priority.—

Ira Goldstein, who was assistant comptroller general under Bowsher and has applied for the now-vacant top spot, also said he wasn’t surprised that the process was taking so long. Not only is finding and interviewing candidates time-consuming, he said, but Members are also busy with a full workload.

“It’s a measured, careful process of culling for candidates, assessing background and papers, interviewing potential leaders and arriving at some bipartisan position about who should be entrusted with this responsibility,— he said. “I think that takes careful deliberation.—

Goldstein, who works at Deloitte Consulting, is among a small but diverse group of candidates. They include Rhode Island Auditor General Ernie Almonte, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen and D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi.

But it’s possible none of them will win the job. Though a panel of House and Senate leaders sends a list of recommendations to the White House, President Barack Obama can nominate someone not on their list. His nominee, whether it’s someone from the Congressional pool or a seemingly random pick, then has to go through a Senate confirmation, which can be a time-consuming process. When President Bill Clinton nominated Walker, for example, the confirmation was held up by partisan debate.

Whoever gets the position will head an agency that influences Congress through its thousands of often-critical reports on government programs and spending. The agency’s more than 3,000 analysts offer sought-after advice to Members in hundreds of hearings every year.

The GAO has also gained new importance in the economic downturn, with Congress directing the watchdog agency to track stimulus funds and investigate the performance of the Troubled Asset Relief Program. But since it gained this new authority, it has been without a permanent chief.

Acting Comptroller General Gene Dodaro has instead been heading the efforts, working with both Congress and the White House during his temporary tenure. A career GAO employee, he is well-liked within the agency and is applying for the permanent post.

But whether his role as acting comptroller general allows him the same freedom as a permanent one is up for debate.

Bowsher said the day-to-day operations of the agency are largely unaffected whether it is headed by a temporary or permanent leader. But an acting comptroller general can’t make big institutional changes, he said.

“The one thing they can’t do as much is they can’t start to promote people and allow things inside the organization to keep it going in sort of a strong way,— he said. “That kind of gets put on hold.—

Ron La Due Lake, a GAO analyst who leads the agency’s union, agreed. The recently formed union will soon begin to negotiate its master contract, and analysts are worried that management will be unwilling to make big internal changes.

“Some of us are a bit concerned that the agency may not be willing to make some major changes,— he said, adding that the GAO needs to act on some issues “no matter how leadership is defined.—

But he also said analysts are not surprised or concerned about the long selection process. Though many are interested to learn more about the candidates, they are also “accustomed to the deliberation that takes place in Congress.—