Search for GAO Head Gets Partisan

Posted December 11, 2009 at 6:02pm

Congress is crafting its final list of recommended candidates to take over the helm of the Government Accountability Office, more than 18 months after former Comptroller General David Walker left the position for a job in the private sector.

But according to several GOP sources, the process has stalled because of disagreements over whether to put longtime Democratic staffer Phil Barnett on the list. Barnett, who is the staff director for Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), is one of eight candidates who are being considered for the final list, sources said.

Republican sources contended that recommending Barnett will look partisan, especially since Waxman is a powerful House Democrat who was on the selecting committee when he was head of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) has since taken his place.

One GOP source familiar with the process said that House Democrats still want to include Barnett on the list, causing a ripple in what has otherwise been a bipartisan process. A spokesman for Towns — whose staff has been handling much of the process — did not return requests for comment. A spokeswoman for Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.), who is also on the selecting committee, also did not return a call.

“Both House and Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats understand the importance of putting forward recommendations that have bipartisan support,— the source said. “You do not want to politicize this process and thereby taint the work moving forward of GAO.—

The search for the next comptroller general — who will head an agency that acts as Congress’ watchdog — began in earnest around April, when a Congressional selection committee began reviewing a small pool of applicants. In the following months, the pool grew to about 18 applicants, one of which is Rep. Todd Platts (R-Pa.), the only Member of Congress on the list.

Throughout the process, Members on the committee have been mum on its progress. They have also been somewhat unconventional in their search for applicants, allowing Platts and at least one other candidate to apply months after the application deadline.

Sources said that the process has so far been bipartisan — and in fact, the list of recommended names that is sent to the White House has to come from a bipartisan, bicameral leadership. The selection committee is made up of House and Senate leadership, plus the chairmen and ranking members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Once the committee sends a list of at least three candidates to the White House, President Barack Obama can either nominate someone from the list or pick his own candidate. The Senate then confirms the nomination.

Whoever gets the job will oversee 3,000 analysts who audit and investigate hundreds of government programs and whose reports often influence Members’ decisions. The GAO has taken on more importance during the economic downturn, with analysts tracking stimulus funds and investigating the performance of the Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Though the agency is nonpartisan, several comptroller generals have had political careers. Two were Members of Congress: former Rep. Lindsay Warren (D-N.C.) and, for a very brief tenure, former Sen. Fred Brown (D-N.H.). But Congress has only been involved in the selection process for the past two comptroller generals. Before then, the president unilaterally made a nomination.

When asked about the disagreement over Barnett, Kurt Bardella, spokesman for Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), said Issa has “every expectation … that we will be able to put forward nominees that have bipartisan support.—

“Everyone within these negotiations understands the importance of GAO and how essential it is to maintain their credibility as an honest broker,— he said. “It would be both disappointing and potentially harmful to the GAO’s credibility if partisan politics derail this process.—

Barnett has been a House staffer for more than 20 years, except for a brief one-year stint as the director of policy research at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. He worked on the Government Reform panel under Waxman for 12 years. Before coming to the Hill, he was an attorney for the Sierra Legal Defense Fund in Alaska.

Karen Lightfoot, Waxman’s spokeswoman, declined to comment, citing an inability to “comment on the process.—

Along with Barnett and Platts, acting Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, former Assistant Comptroller General Ira Goldstein and Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart Bowen are part of the pool of eight applicants being considered for the final list, according to several sources. Bowen has also been a point of disagreement, according to several sources; Bowen, a Bush appointee, was also critical of President George W. Bush’s administration.