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America needs more accountants in Congress

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It’s well known that the demographics of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives don’t proportionally reflect the American population, with a heavy under-representation of some groups, such as women and people of color.

Going beyond the obvious gender and racial inequalities, the characteristics of those elected to public office have a profound impact on the skills that they bring to Capitol Hill and the resulting legislation. Is it possible that congressional demographics are contributing to Washington gridlock?

Lawyers make up exactly 40 percent of the newly elected 116th Congress, while the American Bar Association reports that attorneys make up only 0.4 percent of the U.S. population.

{mosads}It’s hard to say whether or not that over-representation is a bad thing; a legal background has its benefits when the job description is literally “lawmaking,” but it suggests a personality type that is deliberative, bureaucratic and, at times, adversarial.  

What about another key job requirement for lawmakers — budgeting? Annually, Congress oversees the collection of $3.3 trillion in taxes and $4 trillion in spending.

Because the United States government is the largest financial institution in the world, you would hope that there would be a lot of accountants in Congress.

But out of all 535 voting members of the House and Senate, only 11 have received professional training as accountants. There are more medical professionals (30) and professional pilots (12) than accountants in Congress. It’s no wonder that the national debt continues to rise year after year.

For the branch of government that wields the power of the purse, you’d think more of its members would have training in budgeting and accounting. The professional backgrounds of political candidates shape the way they approach public policy when elected into office.

Former lawyers will continue to give you legalese and bills because that is their formative professional training. Put accountants in Congress and they’ll likely push for fiscal transparency and accountability.

Capitol Hill insiders will quickly point out that it’s congressional staff rather than their elected bosses who deal with the nuts and bolts of public policy.

Members are often too busy with hearings, fundraisers and travel to master the vast array of issues that come before Congress in a given term.

In the modern era, most rely on the voting advice of a team of in-house “legislative assistants,” so our $4 trillion fiscal organization is overseen by underpaid 20-somethings usually lacking specialized financial training. That might be part of the reason why our financial governance is so off-kilter.  

Leadership starts at the top, and the lack of certified professional accountants in Congress is no doubt a factor in why the institution has been so slow to address obvious accounting red flags such as annual budget deficits and a lack of “audit readiness” in the Pentagon.

The few accountants in Congress have been actively pushing for better federal bookkeeping. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), one of just two CPAs in the Senate, has framed the need to “update obsolete and antiquated accounting rules” that “haven’t undergone comprehensive review since 1967, more than 50 years ago.”

If Congress had 214 accountants instead of 214 lawyers, it probably would have been done already.

Sheila Weinberg, CPA, is founder and chief executive officer of Truth in Accounting, an organization that researches government financial data and promotes transparency for a better-informed citizenry.

Tags accounting budgeting Congress deficits Fiscal conservatism fiscal deficit lawmaking Mike Enzi national debt

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