David M. Walker, head of the Government Accountability Office, announced Friday that he would resign his position effective March 12 to head a new foundation.
Walker, who has served as comptroller general since late 1998, will be president and chief executive officer of the Peter G. Peterson foundation, which GAO said will be dedicated to "seeking and supporting sensible policy solutions to a range of sustainability and transformation challenges."
Walker said Peterson, senior chairman of the Blackstone Group, a financial services firm headquartered in New York, and former Commerce secretary and Council on Foreign Relations chairman, asked him to head the new foundation within the last few months, and he was undecided until very recently.
"It was a very difficult decision because I love my job, I love the GAO and everything is going very well," Walker said. "No one expected me to leave and really nor did I until the last few weeks."
For the past several years, he has been an outspoken advocate of the need to address long-term fiscal challenges facing government. He has recently been traveling the country with Robert Bixby, director of the Concord Coalition, a balanced budget advocacy group, giving speeches on the risks these challenges pose. The Fiscal Wake-Up Tour was chronicled in the documentary film I.O.U.S.A., which was screened at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
"In a town that is too often focused on short-term crises, David Walker stands out in his ability to focus on big-picture issues facing our nation and has been promoting real solutions to our country's toughest challenges," said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a Washington nonprofit dedicated to attracting talented people to work in government. "He embodies the best qualities we seek in our public servants: integrity, courage, intelligence."
While Walker has been outspoken about his concerns, he said resigning his post would give him much more flexibility to speak out and to advocate specific policy solutions and pieces of legislation.
"There are some practical limitations as comptroller general," he said in an interview with Government Executive. "In my new position I will have more discretionary resources and flexibility as to what I can do and say."
As head of GAO, Walker said, he is not able to get involved with policy on a grassroots level, write books or give regular commentary to the degree necessary to encourage major fiscal change over the next five to 10 years.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, praised the reports produced by GAO during Walker's tenure, including those on the federal response to Hurricane Katrina and contracting in Iraq. "Comptroller General Walker's leadership, expertise, and dedication to public service will be missed in the Congress," Waxman said. "His oversight work saved the taxpayer billions."
Walker also has been involved in some controversy during his tenure, in particular over the compensation of GAO analysts. In 2006 and 2007, Walker reassigned 800 of 1,200 senior analysts to a lower pay category and froze pay increases for hundreds of employees, arguing that a 2004 study conducted by consulting firm Watson Wyatt determined that many GAO analysts were paid above market levels. In response, analysts formed the first-ever union of GAO employees, which negotiated a tentative agreement on 2008 pay raises last week.
One analyst, who has worked with the agency for more 30 years, said most employees were pleased with Walker's resignation. "They were shouting for joy," he said. "The rank and file at GAO was truly dissatisfied and had developed a strong animosity toward him."
Gregory Junemann, president of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, which represents GAO employees, said in a statement that the union employees "congratulate David Walker on his new leadership position … [and] know he will continue to be a strong voice for fiscal discipline and a more efficient and effective government."
Junemann also said the union hopes to work with Congress to find a new comptroller general "who will make a great agency even better."
GAO announced that Gene Dodaro, GAO's chief operating officer and a career civil servant, will serve as acting comptroller general upon Walker's departure. Dodaro is "perhaps the most capable career civil servant in government," Walker said. "I take comfort leaving GAO in great shape and good hands."
The comptroller general is nominated by Congress and appointed by the president for a 15-year term. The presidential appointee must then be confirmed by the Senate. Given that the process is extensive, Walker said he expects Dodaro to remain acting comptroller general for at least 15 months, and the next president to choose his successor.