The General Accounting Office is threatening to sue the Office of Management and Budget for withholding documents from GAO auditors who have been asked by Congress to review OMB's performance in cutting federal paperwork.
Comptroller General Charles A. Bowsher told a House subcommittee yesterday that his agency, under the legislative branch, may be forced to take OMB, an executive branch office, to court to gain access to data it has been seeking for the past four months.
The data, Bowsher noted, was not sensitive material, but rather interagency memos that would reveal how well OMB was meeting the Paperwork Reduction Act, which requires OMB to oversee an overall 25 percent reduction in government paperwork by October 1983.
The House Government Operations Committee, headed by Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), had asked GAO to conduct such a study early last summer.
But since GAO began its audit of OMB operations, "our team has encountered a pretty consistent pattern of not being given the information they have asked for," Bowsher told the subcommittee on legislation and national security, which Brooks also chairs.
For example, to begin its review, GAO asked for an organizational chart of OMB's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the division that oversees government paperwork and regulations.
OMB gave GAO the charts within two weeks, but they were incomplete. Finally in August, 2 1/2 months after the initial request, GAO received the complete organizational material.
After meetings with OMB officials in which Bowsher mentioned the possibility of a suit, OMB sent GAO a 5-foot-high pile of documents last week.
Some more arrived Monday. Bowsher complained that many of these documents had holes in them--literally, since OMB had cut out parts of papers to withhold names of government officials.
Still other documents essential to the GAO review were not received, Bowsher said.
"I just don't understand" why OMB is going to such great lengths to keep the papers from GAO, Bowsher said.
"I'm afraid I do understand--the problem is they just don't want anyone to know what they're doing," Brooks countered.
Bowsher said he had hoped to avoid bringing a suit after a meeting with OMB officials last week in which they promised to give him the data he wanted. But since that data hasn't arrived, he added, "I'm not as confident" of working things out.
GAO would be able to bring a suit under a 1980 law that gave it greater powers to gain access to government records.
GAO's announcement apparently surprised OMB's deputy director, Edwin L. Harper.