As Congress’s nonpartisan auditing arm, the Government Accountability Office for nearly a century has enjoyed access to agencies’ staffs for interviews and documents that facilitate the watchdog’s work evaluating spending and programs.
But in two recent reports, sober-toned GAO narrators described how Trump administration officials took the unusual step of declining to be interviewed or to respond to auditors’ draft findings.
In an Oct. 10, 47-page report to Democratic lawmakers on how funds were used for the Obama-to-Trump presidential transition, auditors wrote that “Because several leaders of the Trump-Pence Transition Team moved to the Executive Office of the President following the inauguration, we contacted the White House Counsel to solicit the perspective of the Trump-Pence Transition Team on information and services made available and provided to them during the transition and obtain additional information on the transition. They did not respond to requests for an interview,” GAO noted. “We contacted the Office of the Vice President because Vice President Pence also served as the chairman of the Trump-Pence Transition Team. The Office of the Vice President did not respond to our request to discuss this work.”
More recently, a 43-page report on the long-term costs to the government of climate change released on Oct. 23 included the comment that GAO “provided a draft of this report for review and comment to the Council on Environmental Quality, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and [the Environmental Protection Agency]. The Council on Environmental Quality and the Office of Science and Technology Policy did not provide comments. EPA did not provide written comments on our findings and recommendation but instead provided technical comments, which we incorporated as appropriate.”
Asked for a reaction on Tuesday, an EPA spokesman told Government Executive, "We continue to study and examine climate change, and we will review the GAO report."
When the presidential transition report came out, several members of Congress were outraged at the Trump team’s short-changing of GAO, calling the practice unheard-of. "It is outrageous that President Trump's transition team and Vice President Pence's office in the White House would not even speak to the nonpartisan auditors at GAO about the way taxpayer funds were spent during the transition," read the statement from Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee who requested the report. "The refusal to cooperate with GAO fits the pattern we have seen from this White House of secrecy and a lack of accountability."
GAO’s enabling legislation goes back to the 1921 Budget and Accounting Act and threads through updated audit-related laws in 1945, 1950, 1970, 1974, 1984, 1990 and 1994. It began with a broad role of investigating “all matters relating to the receipt, disbursement, and application of public funds” and to “make recommendations looking to greater economy or efficiency in public expenditures,” its website says. Such authority was later expanded to include audits of financial statements, program evaluation and contractor protests.
“For the vast majority of agencies we deal with, we get very good cooperation and are able to access the data we need,” GAO spokesman Chuck Young told Government Executive, adding that “Like anything, there are some exceptions. In those instances where we hit a roadblock, we elevate the issue within that agency, and here at GAO, and typically can get issues resolved.”
GAO’s tendency to try to negotiate agency resistance was confirmed by David Walker, who led GAO as comptroller general from 1998-2008. “We had a general process for accepting engagements and a review process,” he said in an interview. “After agreeing to accept [a project], we would have a meeting every week to talk about how the engagements progress was going and ask, ‘Are we having difficulty obtaining access to records or other challenges in executing GAO's statutory responsibilities?’” Walker explained. “We rarely had access problems, and when we did, we’d try to work through them, and in most cases we were able to.”
The notable exceptions, added Walker, who is now running for governor of Connecticut, required the agency to issue a “demand” letter to a non-cooperating agency. The most famous case, he noted, began in 2002, when GAO met resistance for document requests on industry involvement with Vice President Dick Cheney’s secretive energy task force, which Walker’s team (reluctantly, he said) challenged in court. (Though the GAO eventually dropped out, the case in 2004 went all the way to the Supreme Court, which declined to force Cheney to release the papers.)
“GAO has the right of access to records and individuals to the extent that they are government employees or contractors and dealing with information in its purview,” Walker said. Agency “people have the right to comment on drafts of report, but it is not an obligation. From my experience, it’s highly unusual for people not to comment on the reports.” Those comments can be delivered orally or in writing, with GAO including them in the final report, along with notations on whether the agency comments prompted modifications of the report, he said. “It’s intended to provide an appropriate degree of transparency that works both ways.”
Resistance to GAO demands has been mounted by the Navy (over procurement issues) and the CIA (over who performs national security oversight) in the form of incomplete delivery of documents, noted Don Kettl, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and a scholar at the Brookings Institution. GAO’s authority to demand records from national security agencies and regulators would have been strengthened in a 2008 bill passed only by the House.
“But, a decision not to cooperate invariably attracts attention,” Kettl said. “It always leads to questions like, ‘What are they trying to hide?’ And it often generates raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill, even among members of the president’s own party. Even some Republicans in Congress are restive about what they view as the [Trump] administration’s secrecy and lack of transparency, including about the restructuring programs under review,” Kettl added.
Ed DeSeve, who served as OMB’s deputy director for management under the Clinton administration and led a 2016 initiative on presidential transition for the National Academy of Public Administration, told Government Executive that “the single most important thing any presidential appointee can do is establish a fair and open relationship with GAO. It’s extremely important because even though they will have a different point of view,” the result is a process that enables GAO and the agency to provide information and answer questions.
Though DeSeve is not currently familiar with the White House handling of GAO, resistance “certainly happens department by department, when one gets an adverse report and simply reacts by not responding,” he said.
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