Two major agencies are bracing for what could be a major battle this winter over the best way to report the state of the government's finances.
On one side is Comptroller General Charles A. Bowsher of Congress' General Accounting Office, who took office in October 1981 with a goal of making the government's books as easy to understand as the annual report of a major corporation.
On the other side is David A. Stockman, director of the president's Office of Management and Budget, who views the GAO proposal as an infringement on his agency's turf and too expensive to put in place.
While no one disputes the GAO's authority to dictate government accounting standards, OMB officials are irked by what they see as Bowsher's attempts to go beyond that to dictate how the government will report the state of its finances.
Traditionally, the only comprehensive summary of federal spending and revenues is found in the budget that OMB prepares each year for the president. Over the years, however, critics have complained that that system of tracking outlays and obligations fails to account for all of the government's credit programs or its long-term liabilities.
Bowsher says the current system is "too complex" and the "costs of running the government are hidden, all too often."
Instead, he wants to prepare a report that, among other things, would list the government's cash reserves and its "accounts receivable," inventory its property and equipment and estimate its future liabilities. Both GAO and OMB officials acknowledge that the government's long-term financial picture probably would look bleaker as a result, but the OMB officials say that is not why they oppose the GAO proposal.
"Setting this information next to the traditional revenues and expenses of the agencies would give the casual reader more information in an easier-to-understand fashion than ever before," Bowsher said. "The sticking point, though, became liabilities. Nobody agreed that future costs of such things as Social Security and veterans' compensation should be classified there."
In the fall of 1983, the GAO asked agencies and others for their comments on the proposal and received more than 200 letters in support. Bowsher said that most of them supported the idea, with some raising a few technical concerns that GAO officials say they have now addressed.
There was one major exception, though: OMB. Stockman returned the harshest comments, contending that the GAO proposal would overemphasize "accrual accounting," that is, the accounting system in which a company's expenses are recorded when they are incurred, not when the checks are written.
Stockman added: "The draft fails to recognize the detailed and meaningful disclosures made in the budget and existing treasury reports. No attempt is made to integrate additional disclosures with existing documents." Moreover, Stockman said, "our general counsel advises that there are serious legal questions concerning GAO's unilaterally prescribing such reports."
Stockman also is concerned about the cost of the reports.
No one is certain how much money Bowsher's proposal would entail, although it would require many agencies to add computer programs and reports to track the required information.
A senior OMB official contended that the agencies had supported GAO because "the GAO didn't explain all the negative parts of its program. They whitewashed the idea to get positive comments."
To try to build its case, OMB sent a letter to the agencies last October, asking them to take a more critical look at the proposal. But within a month, Bowsher went ahead and issued the guidelines.
"We just couldn't wait and wait or we'd miss the fiscal 1985 cycle," Bowsher said. "All it seemed that OMB wanted to do was delay it again and again. It already has been two years."
Stockman countered with a memo that ordered the agencies to ignore the GAO guidelines. Then on Dec. 19, he followed up by issuing a new policy statement -- called Circular A-127 -- that said agencies should follow GAO accounting principles but abide by "OMB guidelines" for financial reporting.
However, Bowsher believes that GAO, under the Budget Act of 1950, has the authority to set financial reporting guidelines and that OMB overstepped its authority when it issued the circular.
Starting today, OMB and the GAO plan to meet to try to negotiate their differences.
Arlene Triplett, OMB's associate director for management, said it "does not make sense" to apply the GAO system across the board. She said that it would make sense to use the system to track the government's business-type activities, such as the revolving funds that support the government's motor pools and supply depots. But, she said, it makes less sense to apply the system to agencies whose primary expense is salaries, such as OMB, the Federal Trade Commission or the Securities and Exchange Commission.
But Frederick D. Wolf, director of the GAO's accounting and financial management division, said, "Our objective is not to create a flap but to bring the government's financial accounting system up to a level that makes sense. They just don't do that now. No one outside of the few who work with it every day, can understand the budget.