September 24, 2003

Straight Talk

By Stan Collender

Even though they lead the U.S. General Accounting Office, comptrollers general of the United States don't make news that often.

But David Walker is not your usual comptroller general. Last week, he gave one of the most astounding and hard-hitting speeches on the budget that any public official has made in at least the past 15 years. Walker didn't pull his punches, mince his words or in any other way say something indirectly. Instead, he addressed the federal budget situation using straight language with an undeniable meaning.

In spite of all of the happy talk that has been used by elected officials over the past few years, Walker said the federal budget picture "is not good and [is] getting worse." He added that we should not be confused by all of the numbers being used because "they are all big, and they are all bad!"

In sharp contrast to the spin that many in Washington have been using, Walker insisted that "there is little question that deficits do matter, especially if they are large, structural and recurring in nature," which he said is the current situation. Nor did he distinguish between deficits caused by tax cuts and those caused by spending increases, as many have been asking us to do lately.

Most significant, and in one of the most direct challenges to the current politics of the federal budget, Walker said: "Our projected budget deficits are not 'manageable' without significant changes in 'status quo' programs, policies, processes and operations.... We cannot simply grow our way out of this problem."

Walker's speech was all the more remarkable because he didn't have to make it. Unlike the midsession review that the Office of Management and Budget must complete each year, GAO has no such obligation. Aside from the impoundment process, there is no statutory requirement that the comptroller general or GAO be involved in the federal budget debate at all—and certainly nothing that requires comment on current developments or long-term trends.

It was also extraordinary because Walker chose not just to speak out publicly, but to do so at a National Press Club lunch—a high-profile and prestigious forum covered by C-SPAN and National Public Radio, and virtually guaranteed to have a large number of reporters in the audience. Walker could have just sent a letter to the chairs of the budget committees, issued a report or a press release, or spoken to a smaller group, but that apparently would not have served his purpose, which he said was to place a "wake-up call."

And Walker clearly didn't want to get everyone up gently, but rather to roust them with the equivalent of an alarm clock connected to six speakers using surround sound.

Walker's effort was also remarkable because GAO, the organization he heads and clearly loves, is vulnerable to retribution. The comptroller general is appointed to a 15-year term and cannot be removed from office except under the most extraordinary circumstances, so the post is often thought to be above the day-to-day political pressures facing most other government officials. But the agency she or he heads still relies on annual appropriations passed by Congress and signed by the president, so politics is almost always a consideration.

For example, a decade or so ago GAO was criticized for completing a series of booklets on various aspects of the deficit that a number of senators, including the Budget Committee chairman, found objectionable. The senators wanted to know why GAO produced these self-initiated studies when no one had asked them to do so. In effect, Congress was telling GAO to butt out.

But despite the possibility that the White House and members of Congress might take exception to what he was saying and how he said it, Walker decided to go forward. That made the stakes higher and the value of the speech that much greater.

Walker did not just criticize; he also recommended a number of steps that need to be taken. In addition to his overall call to arms, he suggested new budget measurements that would stop policy-makers from "flying blind." He called for "more fiscal discipline on both the spending side and tax side" and for all lawmakers to take "a fiscal Hippocratic oath" to do no further fiscal harm.

The most important thing Walker proposed, however, was a national education campaign to finally get the word out about the real "nature and magnitude" of the budget challenge ahead.

Walker's speech was clearly the first step in that campaign, and he deserves a great deal of credit for having the intestinal fortitude to suggest it.

Question Of The Week

Last Week's Question. The Office Of Management and Budget was originally part of the Treasury Department, where it was known as the Bureau of the Budget. It was transferred to the Executive Office of the President in 1939 and became OMB in 1970. The two winners of "I Won A 2003 Budget Battle" mouse pads are James Carter, deputy assistant secretary for economic policy at the U.S. Treasury, and Angela Meester, who works for the Federal Aviation Administration in Waterloo, Iowa. Jim and Angela were both selected at random from the many people who submitted the correct response.

This Week's Question. Winning an "I Won A 2003 Budget Battle" mouse pad must be even more prestigious that anyone ever imagined. How do we know? Because in spite of the hurricane that shut down Washington last week and wreaked havoc with much of the East Coast, the number of entries for last week's question was the second highest in the history of "Budget Battles." So let's see if we can break that record this time. If you have never entered, why not start now? Even better, how about getting your friends and family to enter as well?

Last week's question talked about OMB, which was created in 1921 as the Bureau of the Budget by the Budget and Accounting Act. This week's column talked about the General Accounting Office. The question: What year was GAO created?

Click here to send in your response, which must be received by 5 p.m. PDT on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2003. If there are multiple winning answers, the "I Won A 2003 Budget Battle" mouse pad will go to the person selected at random from all those who submit the correct response. You must include your mailing address so the mouse pad can be sent if you are the winner.

Note to government employees: Because of security procedures at many offices and facilities, your home address will be the best way to make sure the mouse pad actually gets to you.