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Government Accountability Office

An independent agency tasked with monitoring federal programs and spending.

(Don’t) Forget About the Price Tag

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is an independent, non-partisan agency that works for Congress and is accordingly part of the Legislative Branch. Congress created the GAO in 1921 under the Budget and Accounting Act to oversee government spending. The agency’s responsibilities grew after World War II as government programs expanded.

Today, the GAO helps Congress monitor and audit the executive and judicial branches (as well as independent agencies), with the goal of providing fact-based information to improve government efficiency and save taxpayer dollars. It also provides legal services to Congress, including opinions on appropriations laws and federal agency compliance, rules on certain government contract disputes, and testimony before Congress. The GAO has recently been tasked with evaluating the trillions of dollars of COVID-19 relief funds to ensure program effectiveness and fidelity of the expenditure of funds.

Staring at the Blank Page Before You

The GAO is best known for its reports to Congress. GAO reports are either mandated by Congress or requested by members of Congress. Once a request is made, the GAO responds with either its acceptance of the request or the rationale for its denial. Then, the GAO assembles a team, designs an audit method, sends a draft report to the agencies being audited for comment, and issues the report. The whole process typically takes at least several months.

All requests are not created equally. Reports mandated by Congress have first priority, followed by requests that come from congressional leadership or committee or subcommittee leaders, followed by requests from individual members. Occasionally, the GAO needs to obtain additional approvals on a request from the leadership of the committee of jurisdiction that oversees a particular issue.

R-E-Q-U-E-S-T, Find out What it Means to Me

GAO reports span a wide range of topics; the most recently-published reports cover everything from healthcare to money laundering.

The reasons members of Congress have for requesting reports vary as well. Some dig into specific federal agency practices and offer legislative solutions to the problems that GAO identifies. Others might not result in specific legislative action but can have important ramifications. In October 2020, the GAO accepted a request from Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX), then Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, for a report on the representation of Latinos in the media. Representative Castro was concerned with a wide range of issues, from compliance with equal opportunity requirements in the industry to how the representation of Latinos on-screen leads to real-world discrimination. He touted the report as a “wake-up call” one year later and used it to fuel his continued work on the issue.

Though the GAO is a non-partisan agency, members can still use their requests and the resulting findings as a tool to further their legislative and political agendas.