There is a reason the comptroller general of the United States serves the longest term of appointment in government aside from certain judges, who have lifetime appointments. It's because the person who is responsible for heading the Government Accountability Office (GAO) plays an essential and nonpartisan role in assessing the federal government's performance and reporting on the government's financial condition and future outlook.
The GAO also acts as Congress' eyes and ears as it wields its constitutional power of the purse. Absent the resources it provides, Congress simply wouldn't be able to effectively oversee the performance, accountability and financial condition of federal government. Despite this tremendous responsibility, a vast majority of Americans can't tell you who the current comptroller general is. There's reason for that as well. After all, if Congress doesn't listen to this nonpartisan professional as much as it should, why should the public?
For much of the last decade, I served as comptroller general. In addition to performing my normal responsibilities, I also broke tradition and took on responsibility for serving as a voice for fiscal responsibility in Washington and throughout the country. I warned that America's “current fiscal policy is unsustainable over the long term.” But time and again, those warnings, including those in the GAO's annual audit report on the federal government's financial statements, have gone unheeded by Congress, as the recent failure of the deficit supercommittee aptly demonstrates. It's as if Congress is satisfied with flying blind into a gathering fiscal storm in a mountainous area without effectively using the instruments at its disposal.
Fortunately, the nonpartisan organization No Labels is seeking to remind Congress that the annual audit report of the GAO on the U.S. government's financial statements deserves its undivided attention. Along with about 200,000-plus supporters nationwide, No Labels has put forth 12 reforms to “Make Congress Work.” Among them is a measure that would bring the comptroller general before a joint session of Congress once a year to report on the true state of the nation's finances.
By invitation of congressional leaders, the comptroller general, either alone or in partnership with another nonpartisan, high-ranking government official (e.g., the chairman of the Federal Reserve or director of the Congressional Budget Office), would provide a fact-based and sobering analysis of our nation's financial condition and what is required to improve it. Importantly, the speakers' commitments to nonpartisanship (it's in their job descriptions) would help limit any political or ideological impact on their presentation. Equally important, these events would be televised to provide the American people with a transparent view of the nation's financial condition and increase public awareness of serious financial and other challenges Congress and the president need to confront.
It's true that joint sessions of Congress traditionally are reserved for the president and foreign heads of state, but there have been exceptions – Gen. Douglas MacArthur's 1951 farewell address being perhaps the most notable. America's finances have become so untenable that it's time to make another exception. To restore sanity to the budget process, we need to enhance the respect for and visibility of the officials and institutions on which Congress is supposed to rely to make the right decisions. Allowing those officials to borrow the bully pulpit will not be a cure-all, it certainly is a step in the right direction.
Too often over the last decade, various bipartisan fiscal reform efforts, including the supercommittee, have operated inside Washington and under a shroud. They have been largely invisible to the public, their results have not been effectively communicated to the public, and that makes them too easy for policymakers and the public to ignore. Each December, the federal government releases its financial statements to little fanfare and, predictably, GAO's urgent admonitions about our nation's deteriorating financial condition and fiscal outlook fall on deaf ears, both inside and outside Washington's Beltway.
Given our serious fiscal challenges and current partisan gridlock, for the time being at least, those warnings need to be amplified. What better way to do so than to spotlight them on the federal government's grandest stage?
David M. Walker, a No Labels co-founder, was U.S. comptroller general.