GAO begs Hill for money

Will somebody feed the watchdog?

After almost a decade of personnel cuts and budget reductions, the General

Accounting Office, Congress' watchdog, has developed a lean and hungry look.

Its staff has shrunk from 5,325 to 3,275, its budget has slid from more

than $400 million to slightly more than $300 million a year. Even so, its

workload has not diminished.

The agency, which conducts investigations, performs audits and analyzes

issues for Congress, is now asking lawmakers for help.

Without some assistance, GAO is "not well-positioned to do our job in

the future," Comptroller General David Walker told the House Government

Management Information and Technology Subcommittee Tuesday.

The agency that blew the whistle when the Internal Revenue Service wasted

$3 billion on a computer modernization that failed, called attention to

numerous government computer systems riddled with security problems and

has badgered scores of agencies about waste and ineptitude, finds itself

struggling.

Deep budget cuts between 1992 and 1997 forced the agency to stop hiring

and start firing. As a result, GAO is top-heavy with staff members who are

nearing retirement age, has a shortage of younger workers and lacks certain

scientific and technically trained experts, including information technology

specialists, Walker said.

Meanwhile, "requests for GAO's services have never been higher," he

said. The agency receives about 50 requests each week to conduct studies

for congressional committee chairmen, ranking members and individual members

of Congress.

The demands are expected to continue to grow in an era when Congress

is pressing for accountability in government. Walker said GAO returns $57

to the government for every $1 spent on it.

In 1999, for example, GAO recommendations yielded $20 billion in "direct

financial benefits" to the federal government, Walker said.

Even while piling on the work, Congress has remained quite penurious.

The Senate proposes a modest 2.5 percent budget increase for 2001, but the

House proposes a 2 percent cut.

It is hard to attract good staff members when the workload is increasing

and job security is declining, Walker said.

As part of an effort to turn GAO around, Walker asked for authority

to let retirement-age workers shift from full-time to part-time work without

losing access to their pensions. He also asked Congress to help newly graduated

employees pay off college debts as an incentive to join GAO. Most new hires

have master's and doctoral degrees, and many have substantial debt, he noted.

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