What Does the U.S. Government Accountability Office Do? (with Gene Dodaro)

By Kevin R. Kosar August 7, 2023

The topic of this episode is, “What does the U.S. Government Accountability Office do?”

To answer that question we have Gene Dodaro. He is the eighth Comptroller General of the United States—that means he is the head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). He has held that position since December 2010. Prior to becoming the top dog at this government watchdog agency, Gene held other executive positions at GAO, including Chief Operating Officer. Remarkably, Gene has spent a half of a century at the agency. So, with all that experience I can think of nobody better to ask the question, “What does the Government Accountability Office do?”

Kevin Kosar:

Welcome to Understanding Congress, a podcast about the first branch of government. Congress is a notoriously complex institution and few Americans think well of it, but Congress is essential to our republic. It’s a place where our pluralistic society is supposed to work out its differences and come to agreement about what our laws should be, and that is why we are here to discuss our national legislature and to think about ways to upgrade it so it can better serve our nation. I’m your host, Kevin Kosar, and I’m a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington DC.

Gene, welcome to the program.

Gene Dodaro:

It’s a pleasure to be with you, Kevin.

Kevin Kosar:

Let’s start at the very beginning. GAO was created a century ago. Why?

Gene Dodaro:

GAO was created in 1921—right after World War I. The government had created a large debt during that time in order to promulgate the war, and there was concern about having a better, more disciplined way to handle the federal government’s budget process. In the same legislation in which we were created, the Bureau of the Budget—which is now known as the Office of Management Budget (OMB) in the executive office of the President—was also created, and the very first requirement was put in place for the President to submit a budget annually to the Congress. Then GAO was placed in the legislative branch in order to provide a check and balance on the receipts and expenditures of federal funds and the proper application of those funds to meet the intent of the appropriation legislation for the Congress. So it was an arrangement put in place to provide more fiscal discipline to the federal government’s budget process and execution.

Kevin Kosar:

At that time, GAO had a different name, which to some degree reflected its more limited mission at the time. What was it called back then?

Gene Dodaro:

It was the General Accounting Office. That’s what it was when I first joined GAO in 1973. But at that time even, we were doing more than accounting, but that was our original name—the General Accounting Office.

Kevin Kosar:

It seems that fundamentally GAO was initially established to deal with a basic kind of principle-agent problem that Congress faces, which is: Congress as the principle passes a law puts money towards achieving the objectives in the law, but then the job of actually spending the money and doing the execution is over in the executive branch.

In terms of visibility and understanding, “Is this money going where it should go? Is it being used improperly?”, how is Congress to figure that out other than by hauling executives over and asking them, in which case you’re relying upon information they provide. So GAO has the ability to get into the books of agencies, and to follow the money.

Gene Dodaro:

Absolutely, Kevin. One of the roles of GAO is to make sure that the appropriation laws enacted by the Congress are properly implemented. We audit the federal government’s consolidated financial statements every year, and we’ve worked to create an arrangement where the Inspectors General of each major department and agency audit or arrange for independent audits of the books of the financial operations of each federal agency across the federal government. And then we review that work. It’s done of course with our methodology, and then we audit some agencies individually, like the IRS for example. We audit all the receipts that they collect for the federal government. We audit the Bureau of Public Debt, we audit the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and then we review all these other audits across government and then issue our report on the government’s consolidated financial statements. We also issue legal decisions that anyone has a question in Congress about the proper application of the funds and whether it was done in accordance with appropriation law.

So we’re very much in the business of oversight. Congress is very resourced by the executive branch, and that’s why they need a strong GAO in order to provide that oversight over them, so the system of checks and balances in our government work properly and that the executive branch properly executes the laws that are put in place for Congress. And we’ve grown over the years to not just on fiscal issues, but also looking at whether or not government programs and activities and everything the federal government does is accordance with the authorizing legislation of the federal government’s activities.

Actually, only about 10% of what we do now is in the original role that we had back in 1921 in the financial management area. The vast majority is looking to see whether programs, policies, regulations, and other activities put in place by Congress are operating as intended, and to make sure the government is operating as efficiently and effectively in accordance with congressional direction as possible, or whether there’s need to make refinements and regulations and to help Congress with their fundamental oversight functions as well as their appropriation and responsibilities.

Kevin Kosar:

So the listener who surfs over to gao.gov and starts scanning all the great stuff you have there, might see the term bid protest and say, “Huh, what is that about?” What is bid protest and what’s GAO’s role there?

Gene Dodaro:

We’ve had that role for decades through the Competition in Contracting Act (1984). Every year, the federal government spends $500 billion or more to procure certain services items, etc. If you’re a contractor that bids on a government contract and you don’t win and you’re concerned that the federal agency or department didn’t follow the laws or things weren’t properly clear in their procurement process or you think you weren’t treated fairly, you can come to GAO and file a bid protest and say you don’t think this was followed for the following reasons. GAO will issue an opinion within 100 days as to whether or not we sustain the protest or deny the protest.

Sometimes the agencies—once the protest is made and understanding the concerns that are being had—will take immediate action to rectify the situation. And so we have a team of highly skilled procurement experts in law here at GAO in our Office of General Counsel. They’ll hold hearings, they’ll take documents from the protestors and agencies, and then eventually they’ll render a decision. We probably get about well over 2,000 of these bid protests every year. Competition for federal contracts is key. And in some areas there’s been consolidation in the industries, which makes the competition a little bit more intense.

Kevin Kosar:

So I want to talk a little more about something you alluded to already, which is that GAO had this more limited mission 100 years ago, and it’s subsequently been expanded. And if memory serves, one of the first expansions occurred around 1974. This was a period when Congress as a whole had just decided to bulk up its power. It was tired of being pushed around by the executive, whether it was President Nixon or President Johnson, and it just started investing in itself. It created a Congressional Budget Office, it created a new Budgeting Act, it expanded the Legislative Reference Service into the Congressional Research Service, invested in more staff, and it gave GAO more to do.

What was that first expansion in the early ’70s?

Gene Dodaro:

The first one came in 1970 when our role was expanded to include program evaluation plus all the financial stuff that we have. We rarely had anything taken away, it has been added to our responsibilities. So that was first, and you’re exactly right. In 1974, there was legislation passed in the Budget Control and Impoundment Act, and previously certain presidents had tried to not spend money that Congress had appropriated and withhold the funds. There was a lot of concern and debate about whether that was constitutional or not, so there was eventually a law—an agreement—worked out, where presidents could submit what are called rescissions that where they would not spend the money that Congress has appropriated, but Congress would have to be notified. They would be given 45 days and they had to approve that rescission in order for it to take place. If not, then the executive branch was to then spend the money in accordance with congressional direction. There was also a different type of proposal called a deferral, which the President would defer the money, and unless Congress acted against that within certain timeframes, then that could be deferred. But most of its focus is on the rescission part.

Once there’s a special message from the President to the Congress in order to rescind, make a proposal for rescission, and occurs in these special messages, GAO has 10 days to inform the Congress of what the impact of that rescission would be on the particular programs or activities entail. And then Congress then acts within 45 days. Now, if Congress doesn’t act affirmatively, the money is to be released. So our job is to make sure indeed the money is released and we’re authorized to go to court in order to enforce the release of the money if the executive agencies did not do that on their own accord. The only one time have we had to do that was right after the law was passed in the ’70s and it was involved in Housing and Urban Development Department. We actually notified Congress we were going to take this action, but before it got to court, HUD released the money, so it didn’t really get that far. Since then we haven’t really had any issues.

Now we also have responsibility where if we notice and through our work or it comes to our attention through other parties, and this will happen, federal decisions made by Congress and the corporation laws are virtually all public except for certain highly classified areas. So people know that they’re to expect some money or the agency’s supposed to spend it in various areas. So if it comes to our attention—somebody says, “Hey, this program was supposed to do X and it’s not doing X,”—we’ll go in and investigate on our own, and then we will issue a special message to the Congress if we think there was an impoundment made that wasn’t reported to the Congress.

That’s basically our role under that legislation and there’ll be periods where there are no special messages to the Congress, there’ll be other times that there are messages over time, and there’ll be some where we’ve identified things that should have been reported to the Congress that weren’t. We also have responsibility from our earlier role to make sure the agencies don’t spend more than they’re supposed to by the Congress, and that’s called an anti-deficiency violation. And Congress asked us in recent times to keep a section on our website of all antideficiency violations, which we do do.

Kevin Kosar:

That’s terrific.

GAO’s duties continue to expand. I recall in the mid- to late-1990s, when Congress passed the Congressional Review Act, which is a vehicle by which Congress can strike down regulations, GAO was given additional reporting requirements related to regulations. But then 2004, GAO got its then new name, no longer was it the General Accounting Office, and it became the Government Accountability Office. With that, what other duties were added on?

Gene Dodaro:

Actually the name change, Kevin, was done to catch up with the past. As you’ve mentioned, a lot happened between 1921 and 2004. Our expansion into program evaluation, our expansion into the Budget Control and Impoundment Act, the Competition In Contracting Act and the bid protest area. And so the General Accounting Office didn’t fit us anymore, and it was impediment to recruiting the multidisciplinary task force that we need to do. People would say, “Well why do I want to go work there? I’m not an accountant. I don’t want to work for the General Accounting Office.” In fact, all but maybe 10% of our people are not accountants right now. And so we changed the name in order to help us with recruiting and also to better explain to new members of Congress and staff that our role was well beyond the accounting functions that were our origins 100 years ago and that we’ve evolved over time to a very multidisciplinary agency that does work across the federal government on anything the federal government’s doing or thinking about doing.

So we have a very wide portfolio. We provide support to over 90% of the standing committees of the Congress, and we have subject area experts in every part of the federal government now, whether it’s defense, healthcare, environment, etc. We have then technical specialists, actuary scientists, information technology, cybersecurity specialists, etc. And so we have a very wide range of disciplines. And all our work now mostly is putting together interdisciplinary teams in order to carry out the audits and functions that we do across the government and issue the hundreds of reports that we issue every year and provide expert witnesses to the Congress for committees or whatever. So the name change, and it’s really worked. It’s really worked. It’s made it easier to recruit. We have no problems recruiting high talented people. Most of our people have advanced degrees. We just have a terrific, terrific workforce. In fact, in the last three years in a row now, we’ve been ranked the top place to work in the federal government for midsized agencies. And that further helps in recruiting.

Kevin Kosar:

Well perhaps reflecting the old dictum, “no good deeded goes unpunished,” in 2018, Congress gave you yet another task to do. It asked you to pick up responsibilities that were similar to those that were once handled by the Office of Technology Assessment, an agency in the legislative branch that was abolished back in 1995. What’s this new line of work like?

Gene Dodaro:

Excellent question, Kevin. That was sort of evolving over time.

In the early 2000’s, we were asked to do a pilot to see if we could do technology assessments similar to what the Office of Technology Assessment had done. And then I started hiring additional people. In fact, I hired our first chief scientist back in 2008. So we were sort of growing that function for a while because we needed it to carry out our normal responsibilities as well as do these special projects that Congress had asked us to pilot. But as technology has evolved faster than any time in humankind, Congress was really asked to make a decision whether do we recreate the Office of Technology assessment, or do we bolster the capabilities that GAO has been growing over this period of time? And they went with that option.

And so in 2018, it created a special team for Science Technology Assessments and Analytics, we were able to populate that team with many people in GAO were already working on some of these things, but from 2019 to up to 2023, most recently, we’ve tripled the size of that team in GAO and recruiting a lot more people, including our first chief data scientists.

We have brought in a lot of other people with a lot of skills in the different science and technology areas. What our responsibilities are now are to do technology assessments of different technologies. We’ve done ones, for example, on artificial intelligence and how it could be used to expedite drug development, how it’s used in diagnosis of people, and then a third report on the treatment act. We did those in conjunction with the National Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences. I created a contract probably 20 years ago with the National Academies where we could go there and get them to help us identify the top experts in the country on any issue that we needed help on. Part of our methodology for doing the technology assessments were to convene expert panels with National Academies help us do that.

And so it’s a very good resource. We also started creating, because there was a need in the Congress for quick explainers of different science and technology issues, and we created two-page spotlights where you can go in and you, we’ve done about 38 of these so far under our new responsibilities. And you can learn very quickly in simple language what a new technology might be, how it’s applied, what some of the limitations are, what some of the policy issues are on that. For example, quantum computing. We have one that explains how quantum computing is really going to make a lot of the current encryption methods archaic, and we need to get prepared for that going into the future. What’s 5G technology and how does that work and how does hypersonic weapons, we have one on that, how how’s that work? What’s the status of that? What’s the status of issues in advanced batteries?

So it spans across the entire range of the federal government’s activities. And then the group also is set up to provide technical assistance to the Congress to help it and all the committees and all the members understand different issues related to science and technology issues to help them in their oversight and legislative functions going forward. Most recently, we helped, for example, to provide some explanations that help people understand the semiconductor challenges that we have as Congress was trying to create the CHIPS Act, just to give you an example. But we do this on all sorts of ranges of issues now. And I’m continuing to try to grow this group a little bit further because the science and technology issues are going to dramatically change the type of issues that Congress needs to deal with.

Also, our normal work in looking at, for example, defense weapons systems, we audit virtually the portfolio of weapon systems, major weapon systems at the Department of Defense (DoD) and do in-depth reviews of certain ones like the Columbia class nuclear submarine where I need people with nuclear backgrounds and experience on those issues. And DoD’s investing heavily now in artificial intelligence and hypersonic weapons.

On the energy front, decarbonization is a big issue. We’ve issued a technology assessment on carbon capture issues as well, a lot of issues on autonomous vehicles and technology driving those issues. And so we use a need this capability to not only fill this particular need Congress has to deal with the science and technology issue, but it helps other committees in the Congress too, so that we can give them a very sophisticated analysis of helping them make appropriation decisions on where to invest this money. Are we ready to go into production for this particular technology?

We’ve also created best practices guides in this group. For example, we have one that can be applied to provide an assessment as to whether the technologies behind the proposed change are mature enough to go into production and have followed best practices. We did this during the pandemic, for example, on the mRNA vaccines that were put in place and went in and had our teams look at whether or not they followed this technology maturity, best practices, and found that they did, and they were able to do some things concurrently that they had historically been done sequentially, but they really were able to follow the methodology and mature the technology according to the guidance that we had had issued.

Kevin Kosar:

All righty. Well we are nearly out of time, but I’ve got to get in one last question.

I wrote a chapter in a book called Congress Overwhelmed that described the position of the legislative branch support agencies, Congressional Research Service, CBO, GAO, etc. As an uneasy one in our separation of power systems, most agencies are firmly an executive branch and ultimately need to respond to an agency head appointed by the President with senate approval. But that’s not the situation for the folks who lead the legislative support agencies. You all work for Congress and you have to report to authorizing committees and appropriations committees, and you have to do it in the House and the Senate and GAO, to make things even more complicated, much of your work is driven by committee chairman requests.

With all that, with so many masters to answer to, how do you navigate those difficulties? How do you manage an agency and keep doing things well enough so that you’ve got Congress who’s so happy, they just keep giving you more work?

Gene Dodaro:

Well what you have to realize, Kevin, is that while we’re in the auditing and evaluation business, we’re also in the relationship business. We’re in the communication business, but relationships matter. We have a set of congressional protocols that we’ve negotiated with the Congress. And what we did was we negotiated with—there’s a 10 member congressional commission that’s appointed when there’s ever a vacancy in the Comptroller General position, and they do a search and then come up with three or more names to go to the President for selection then their Senate confirmation. Now once that happens, the President has no role, as you’re pointing out. In GAO, we’d sort of have a board of directors that we treat as this 10 member congressional commission. So we worked with them on a set of protocols. Then we work on a five-year strategic plan for the Congress and for the country and we start with interest from the congressional committees and the members, they have a lot of insights based upon their constituents discussions and their contacts with industry and individuals.

We have outside panels and experts and things, and a lot of institutional knowledge in GAO. Most of our people have been there 25, 30 years, so we have a deep knowledge. And because the Comptroller General position is in place for 15 years, we have more continuity than any other part of the federal government, particularly the executive branch. You have some continuity in the Federal Reserve, but GAO—with this appointment process that we have, which I believe has worked very well—has a lot of continuity as well. So we have longstanding relationships with the congressional committees, and we’re always in discussion with them.

The strategic plan helps identify areas we think are important and that Congress thinks it’s important. So most of what we do is a shared agenda. And even though the requests come in or legislative provisions or committee or conference reports, most of those things are results of already discussions that have been had between GAO and the committee staff and the members. I also try to meet on a regular basis with the chairs and ranking members of each committee of the Congress to understand their priorities, to explain how GAO functions to them. And we work on a number of common issues. I was just up this morning meeting with the chairman of a committee, and so I try to provide those outreach things. And I also though, also you have to understand that each executive branch administration has a corollary party in the Congress. So it’s important to have good constructive relationships with the executive branch agencies.

Otherwise, they’re going to raise issues with their particular party no matter which party it is, in the Congress, so it can create problems. So you need to have good relationships with every committee, you need to have good relationships with the executive branch agencies. I meet with all the agency heads as they’re confirmed and put in place to explain our relationship, make sure we have good constructive relationships. And when there are problems and there are always problems at some point and reluctance to share information with us, then it’s more easy to work those out if you have already established relationships.

Finally, it’s very important that we’re guided by a set of very important values in GAO, and this helps us anchor us and make sure we have good integrity, that we’re professional, objective, fact based, nonpartisan, non-ideological, fair and balanced. And that is something that’s imbued in every GAO employee. They’re independent and they’re nonpartisan. You have to act that way and every audit and every engagement that you’re on in order to make sure that we can maintain and enhance our reputation with the agencies. I’m very proud that we have a very good, solid relationship in the Congress on a bipartisan basis, both in the House and the Senate, and that’s due to a lot of work and a lot of adherence to our values and professional standards over a long period of time.

Kevin Kosar:

Gene Dodaro, Comptroller General of the United States, thank you for making time in your very busy schedule to come on the show and help us better understand, “What exactly does the Government Accountability Office do?”

Gene Dodaro:

Thank you, Kevin. It’s always a pleasure to be with you.

Kevin Kosar:

Thank you for listening to Understanding Congress, a podcast of the American Enterprise Institute. This program was produced by Jaehun Lee and hosted by Kevin Kosar. You can subscribe to Understanding Congress via Stitcher, iTunes, Google Podcasts, and tune in. We hope you’ll share this podcast with others and tell us what you think about it by posting your thoughts and questions on Twitter and tagging at @AEI. Once again, thank you for listening and have a great day.


Stay in the know about our news and events.