GAO chief worried about growing investigations workload

Comptroller General David Walker said Tuesday he might have to consider turning down congressional requests for investigations because of a manpower shortage.

Appearing before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Walker outlined "special challenges" facing GAO. For example, the watchdog agency has a backlog of unstaffed requests.

"We are concerned that we may not be able to respond to engagements we accept in a timely manner if the backlog builds," he said. In that case, he added, he and key congressional committees may have to make "some tough choices, such as possibly reconsidering and reprioritizing any pending requests and not being able to accept requests from individual members."

Walker said that following its highly publicized clash with Vice President Cheney over the administration's refusal to turn over records of Cheney's National Energy Policy Development Group, the agency has "not experienced thus far a proliferation" of access denials. But he warned investigations would be impeded if that does occur.

On agency accomplishments, Walker said GAO saved the government $37.7 billion in fiscal 2002, compared to $19.7 billion in 1998, when Walker took the job.

However, an outside GAO reviewer, Maurice McTigue, questioned whether higher savings is a good sign. McTigue, director of the Government Accountability Project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, said money recovery is "a significant achievement but what does it tell us?" He testified: "Is the problem of bad behavior by government organizations getting worse? GAO's reporting falls short of giving us a picture of improvement or deterioration in management practices in government organizations."

McTigue, a former member of the New Zealand Parliament, also suggested that GAO, which he called the "best of the best" in government, take on a role of monitoring whether the Justice Department is impeding civil liberties because of expanded police powers.

"It seems to me that an organization like GAO has the reputation for credibility and integrity to be able to examine the use of these powers in confidence," McTigue said.

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