GAO supports anti-lobbying legislation

The General Accounting Office recently signaled its support of legislation designed to inhibit congressional lobbying by federal agencies: the Federal Agency Lobbying Act (H.R. 3078).

In testimony before Congress, GAO said it had backed legislation similar to H.R. 3078 nearly 12 years ago. That legislation would have forbidden the use of appropriated funds by agencies for lobbying purposes. That bill was never enacted.

GAO officials said they found it unfortunate that 12 years had passed with no further action. I'm not surprised with that state of affairs, and GAO shouldn't be either.

In 1919, Congress enacted legislation (18 U.S.C. 1913) that makes the use of appropriated funds to lobby Congress a criminal offense, with the Justice Department responsible for enforcement.

According to GAO, DOJ has construed this legislation to prohibit the use of appropriated funds for large-scale, high-expenditure, indirect - or grass-roots - lobbying campaigns. GAO noted that no one has ever been indicted under this statute. Some enforcement, huh?

GAO said one restriction with which it has experience bars the use of appropriated funds for "publicity or propaganda purposes designed to support or defeat legislation pending before Congress." The agency said this provision means that it's OK for agencies to directly contact members of Congress to lobby for certain legislation, but it's not OK to engage in indirect or grass-roots lobbying by appealing to the public to contact their elected representatives.

The legislation now before Congress is similar to a prohibition that's been in the Interior Department appropriations bill for almost 20 years. That rule makes it a no-no to lobby for any activity or publish or distribute literature that in any way tends to promote public support or opposition for any pending legislative proposal.

According to GAO, its "account settlement" authority (the right to examine an agency's books) allows it to take exception to an improper or illegal expenditure made by an agency and seek recovery. But, GAO said, the new legislation will give it more muscle than it now has under the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, which authorizes it to investigate "all matters related to the receipt, disbursement and use of public money" and to "settle all accounts of the United States government" - its settlement authority.

I'm not quite sure why GAO hasn't used this authority before now to come down on lobbying by federal agencies. It would appear that the 1921 legislation establishing GAO gives it plenty of authority to get into these matters. By GAO's own admission, it hasn't used this "settling" authority, but it doesn't explain why it hasn't. Why doesn't GAO routinely ascertain whether agencies improperly use appropriated funds for lobbying purposes? Hell, when I was a fed, GAO would come up with an audit plan for each agency each year and identify its "targets." Why can't improper lobbying be one such target?

GAO hems and haws by saying the "accountable officers" in individual agencies who are paying bills for activities that may not be proper are not the real culprits because they may not be in a position to know whether the money was used for illegal lobbying. I disagree. Certifying officers are responsible for making sure that payments made are lawful. Why is there an exception here?

Even so, I do buy GAO's contention that these bean counters are not the real culprits. The real culprits are the guys that go out and spend taxpayer money improperly. Again, why GAO can't go after these guys beats me. The notion that government agencies are using public funds to lobby Congress is repugnant. As a taxpayer, my money goes to fund government agencies so that they can carry out legislation passed by Congress. For agency officials to use taxpayer funds to lobby Congress, when these guys are on the payroll at taxpayer expense in the first place, is adding insult to injury.

I heartily endorse passage of the proposed legislation, but I fault GAO for not having pursued this problem in the absence of more specific legislation. I don't think it needs additional legislation to "feel" authorized to go after those who spend government money inappropriately for lobbying purposes.

GAO wrapped up its testimony by saying that if the legislation were passed, it would not have a significant impact on its workload, so why doesn't the agency behave as if the legislation were passed? It has the authority; it just doesn't have the guts.

**

Bureaucratus is a retired federal employee who is a regular contributor to FCW and author of Bureaucratus Moneyline, a personal finance newsletter for feds, available by subscription on FCW's Web page at http://www.fcw.com. You can reach Bureaucratus via e-mail at bureaucratus@fcw.com.

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