GAO Chief’s Perks Under Review Again

Posted September 22, 2009 at 5:56pm

For more than 50 years, the head of the Government Accountability Office has received a rare perk: full salary for life.

The comptroller general’s retirement package — one shared only by federal judges — is partly meant to keep Congress’ watchdog independent. And because the job’s 15-year term is too short to provide meaningful income from the federal retirement system, a lifetime annuity theoretically is needed to attract desirable candidates from outside the government.

But a few years ago, House appropriators began to question the payout, which now totals about $300,000 a year for two former comptrollers general. In 2007, the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, chaired by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), inserted a provision to repeal the annuity, only for the Senate to remove the language.

Now, with Congress searching for a new comptroller general to replace David Walker, the issue has arisen again in the form of a report recently released by the National Academy of Public Administration.

The 130-page report concludes that the annuity “contributes— to the officeholder’s independence “but is not strictly necessary for that purpose.— Still, the report adds that NAPA’s panel of experts “has not found sufficient reason for altering the benefit.—

“It’s not negligible, but it’s not irrelevant,— said Rick Cinquegrana, the NAPA program area director who oversaw the project but did not serve on the panel. “Will the comptroller general be independent without it? Probably.—

But, he added, if lawmakers take away the annuity, they would have to develop a new retirement benefit and re-evaluate the other incentives designed to keep the comptroller general independent.

According to the report, GAO officials believe the 56-year-old system known as a “three-legged stool— — the lifetime annuity, a 15-year term and various protections against removal — work in tandem to ensure GAO independence. The 15-year term and removal protections keep the officeholder in place longer than a president and throughout several Congressional terms. The lifetime annuity keeps comptrollers general from worrying about how they will pay for retirement once they leave the GAO.

The NAPA report focuses on the third leg as an incentive for candidates who haven’t had long government careers, theoretically widening the pool of applicants. Candidates see the annuity as “adequate compensation for what they’ve given up,— said Steven Katz, a one-time senior adviser to Walker and former counsel to the then-Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

But in the search to replace Walker, the pool of applicants numbers only about a dozen. And almost 18 months after he left the post for the private sector, Congress has yet to send a list of recommended names to President Barack Obama, who will make the final nomination (though his choice does not have to come from the Congressional list).

“I believe that one of the primary importances of the annuity relates to attracting a new Comptroller General,— Katz said in an e-mail, “and that this annuity should serve as an incentive to Congress and the President to identify a nominee who is terrific and is departing their current position at an important juncture in their professional career.—

Whether such arguments will sway House appropriators is still unknown. The 2010 legislative branch appropriations bill has no provision relating to the annuity, but Wasserman Schultz requested the NAPA report in April, during the appropriations process. Its release came after the bill passed the House.

The committee is still reviewing the report and will “take it into consideration— for any future action on the annuity, said Jonathan Beeton, Wasserman Schultz’s spokesman. Ranking member Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) remained similarly noncommittal.

“For the sake of neutrality, the position of GAO Comptroller General should remain a position of independence,— he said in an e-mail. “However, I will continue to monitor the debate on whether an annuity should be given to this position.—