Who could best lead the GAO?

By Paul C. Light
Friday, May 7, 2010

Lost in news reports about recess appointments and Senate delays is the long-awaited appointment of the comptroller general of the United States -- perhaps the most important job that most Americans do not know about.

The comptroller general runs the Government Accountability Office, which has 3,100 employees and an immense agenda: Name an issue on the national stage, a department in distress or a government program under construction, and the GAO is studying it. Because steadiness is essential for aggressive oversight, the comptroller general has a 15-year term and can be removed only for cause.

Technically, the comptroller general reports to Congress, but he or she is nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Under legislation passed in 1980, Congress starts the nomination process by convening a bipartisan leadership commission that must give the president at least three names for review. Presidents are constitutionally free to nominate anyone, but the list creates a presumption in favor of one of the candidates.

Congress dithered for months after David Walker stepped down as comptroller general in March 2008 and finally convened its commission in April 2009. But like much of the legislative process, the commission quickly bogged down in hyper-partisanship. After fighting to a standstill, Democrats and Republicans sent the White House separate lists in late March.

It appears that Republicans made the decision to leave the commission, charging that there was partisanship afoot. Even though Democrats had put Rep. Todd Platts (R-Pa.) on their final list of four, Republicans balked when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi insisted that Linda Bilmes remain on the list.

Bilmes entered the process with a stellar record of research and teaching at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. She served as the Clinton administration's chief financial officer at the Commerce Department, one of the least-partisan posts a presidential appointee can occupy. She has a letter of recommendation from former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Bilmes also brings significant expertise on improving the federal workforce, which does not receive enough attention on Capitol Hill these days.

Republicans, however, looked at her 2007 contributions to the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama and decided she was too liberal to serve. In fact, GOP opposition to Bilmes may have been less about her modest political connections and more about her co-authorship of the book "The Three Trillion Dollar War," a frank and deeply troubling calculus of the true cost of the conflict in Iraq. She is clearly up to the job, but would be under constant Republican fire during her tenure.

Yet Republican concerns about the politicization of the GAO apparently did not extend to one of their four candidates, Stuart Bowen. Bowen has performed admirably in the nonpartisan post of special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, but took the job after serving for 10 years as a senior aide to George W. Bush. He was also on the Bush legal team during the Florida recount and is much more partisan than Bilmes, if she can be called partisan at all.

It is not clear whom President Obama will select, but no matter the nominee, three criteria should be at the fore:

First, the comptroller general must be absolutely committed to rigorous investigation. Even though congressional requests drive a huge percentage of its work, the GAO must have absolute freedom to follow any lead, make any recommendation and publish any study. The comptroller general must be willing to take the heat.

Second, the comptroller general must speak the truth even when it offends Congress or the president. The GAO does much more than audit and investigate programs. It also helps set the policy agenda, draft legislation and oversee faithful execution of the nation's laws. The comptroller general must be ready to call anyone in Washington to account on any issue.

Third, the comptroller general cannot have any partisan connections. Much as Democrats and Republicans might want one of their own at the helm, the GAO cannot be effective if it is seen as a tool of either party. The comptroller general needs strong political skills but no political past.

There are two candidates who appear to satisfy these criteria: acting comptroller general Gene Dodaro and former assistant comptroller general Ira Goldstein, both of whom were included on the Democratic and Republican lists. The question is whether the White House wants to reward Dodaro's 30 years of backbreaking service in the GAO or Goldstein's wider range of experience (at the GAO, the Social Security Administration and the consulting firm Deloitte). Each would excel in the post.

If the GAO is to remain a safe harbor for speaking truth to power, it needs a leader who is dedicated to honest, aggressive oversight. The White House must avoid even the slightest hint that the new comptroller general has a political agenda. Dodaro and Goldstein meet that test.

Paul C. Light, a professor at New York University's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, writes the "Light on Leadership" column for The Post's "On Leadership" Web site.

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