Support for government accountability shouldn't be a casualty of impeachment drama

Support for government accountability shouldn't be a casualty of impeachment drama
© Greg Nash

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) usually works hard to avoid political controversy. But the agency’s recent legal decision vaulted the nonpartisan agency into the center of impeachment politics. The GAO asserted that the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) violated the law when it withheld millions in funding from the Department of Defense that Congress appropriated for security aid authorized by the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI).

In the wake of the GAO’s legal decision, conservatives should resist the temptation to dismiss the GAO as another creature of the swamp. In fact, Congress’s watchdog is one of taxpayers’ best tools for holding a dysfunctional government accountable while addressing the nation’s long-term governance challenges. 

Under the Impoundment Control Act (ICA), the GAO explains, OMB is not permitted to unilaterally decide to withhold funding. In this instance, the administration did not follow the authorized procedures to propose to Congress a “deferral or rescission and the reason for the proposal.” Instead, the administration withheld the aid for policy reasons – telling GAO later that OMB delayed the funding to ensure funds were not spent “in a manner that could conflict with the President’s foreign policy” – which is improper under the ICA. 

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GAO’s General Counsel Thomas H. Armstrong concluded his legal ruling by stating that, “We consider a reluctance to provide a fulsome response to have constitutional significance.” He added a reminder that, “All federal officials and employees take an oath to uphold and protect the Constitution and its core tenets, including the congressional power of the purse.” 

Such strong rhetoric is unusual from an agency known for framing its findings in evenhanded language. Congressional staffers often joke that their reports usually include the phrase “progress made but challenges remain,” which balances but weakens their impact to ensure impartiality. 

It is not surprising that the Trump administration and its supporters strongly disagreed with the GAO’s ruling and criticized the perceived politicization.

Acting OMB Director Russ Vought dismissed the report as coming “...from the same people who said we couldn’t keep the National Parks open during the shutdown,” and argued that the GAO “...flipped its position twice in the last few months.” The Hill quoted a senior administration official who called the report “an overreach” and criticized GAO for getting involved “in the media’s controversy of the day.”

The Wall Street Journal editorialized that GAO’s “...analysis that the Trump Administration violated the law reads like a brief from the Center for American Progress,” and warned that the watchdog agency will “undermine its credibility if it joins the anti-Trump resistance.”

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Fair enough. But it is worth remembering that this isn’t the first time that the GAO has reported that the administration had broken the law. Not long ago, the tables were turned, and conservatives cheered the watchdog.

In 2016, the GAO ruled that the Obama administration had not followed the law under the Affordable Care Act when it prioritized payments to insurers to stabilize markets instead of making statutorily-required payments to the Treasury. At the time, the HHS Department disagreed with the decision, arguing that it had acted “lawfully and in a transparent manner” and that its actions “...help[ed] to reduce premiums for consumers.” Republicans hailed the GAO’s finding as evidence to support their longstanding position that the administration had implemented the law illegally.

While some members of Congress relax their oversight of federal agencies when their party is in power, the GAO generally pursues its oversight work consistently during Democratic and Republican administrations. 

It is for this reason that conservatives and liberals alike should maintain their bipartisan support for the GAO and its mission of nonpartisan oversight on behalf of the legislative branch.

Over the long haul, the GAO’s nonpartisan and consistent approach to federal oversight yields significant taxpayer savings. The GAO estimates that its recommendations have contributed to more than a trillion dollars in savings since 2000. On average, GAO’s self-reported annual return-on-investment is more than 100 to 1 over that 20-year period. In 2019 alone, GAO saved taxpayers $215 billion — or $338 for every dollar of its budget.

Beyond savings, the GAO’s oversight also pressures federal agencies to improve their performance in ways that are difficult to quantify. Their biennial High Risk List, for example, helps Congress and federal agencies recognize where the greatest attention is needed. The GAO’s experts are also regularly called on to advise the legislative process. 

Declining bipartisan support for the GAO could erode Congress’s already weakened capacity to execute its responsibilities under Article I of the Constitution. For example, the GAO’s staff has declined from nearly 5,000 employees in 1993 to under 3,200 in 2019. Along with the eliminated Office of Technology Assessment, lawmakers have less expertise to draw upon than in the past.

With the 2020 impeachment chapter of American politics closed, Congress will need to refocus on the governance challenges long-identified by conservatives — including a ballooning federal debt and ineffective executive agencies. Congress needs a strong and trusted GAO for the hard work ahead. 

Nilmini Rubin is managing director and co-founder of Fix the System. Zach Graves is head of policy at Lincoln Network.