GAO Digs Up the Data When Congress Calls
When they debated Ed-Flex legislation earlier this year, lawmakers of all stripes repeatedly cited a General Accounting Office study--both to attack and defend the bill. Meanwhile, almost any time school construction is discussed in Washington, statistics from GAO research are invoked.
And when the federal E-Rate program came under fire from some Republicans last year, members of Congress turned to the GAO for a study that ultimately yielded the recommendations used to reform the program before it ever doled out a single dollar to schools and libraries for Internet hook-ups.
Though the congressional agency is familiar to the inside-the-Beltway crowd, for many people outside Washington the GAO is little more than a name, or just a set of initials. And, some insiders say the name is out of step with the modern agency.
"The name goes back to 1921, when the agency was created," Richard L. Hembra, the assistant comptroller general for the office's health, education, and human services division, explained in a recent interview. He said the office and its mission have changed as much as the federal government has this century.
"Today, if you were to rename GAO," he said, a more apt title would be the General Accountability Office. That, he argued, would reflect the shift from a focus primarily on financial-accounting matters in the federal government to a broader emphasis on program efficiency and effectiveness and policy analysis.
Congress regularly turns to its investigative arm when it needs in-depth, nonpartisan research conducted. Of course, lawmakers have lots of differing agendas, and that fact of life puts the office in the position of maintaining objectivity while serving an intensely partisan body.
"The pressure in Congress is great," said Maris A. Vinovskis, a University of Michigan researcher who closely monitors federal education policy. "They're the ones who allocate staff positions; they're the ones who allocate the money."
"Inevitably," he added, "each side is pushing you."
Still, by most accounts, the GAO enjoys the widespread confidence of Republicans and Democrats alike.
"They try to be straight shooters as best they can in education," said John F. Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy and a former longtime aide to House Democrats.
"I think in general they do very thorough work and very good work," added Vic Klatt, the education policy coordinator for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
With a fiscal 1999 budget of $359 million and more than 3,000 employees, the GAO is the largest support agency for the federal government's legislative branch. Other such agencies include the Congressional Budget Office and the Library of Congress.
The scope of the GAO's research is as broad as the federal government, and studies touch on everything from defense restructuring and nuclear-waste disposal to Social Security and airline safety. In fiscal 1998 alone, the agency produced 1,136 reports, 181 formal congressional briefings, and 256 congressional-testimony statements.
Within education, the agency has examined a wide range of subjects. Its current work includes upcoming reports on early-childhood programs, migrant education, and educational technology, among others. (See box, Page 31.)
The vast majority of the GAO's work is driven by congressional requests, although a small portion is self-initiated. Some requests are bipartisan, but many are not. For example, all but two of the eight upcoming reports on K-12 issues were requested solely by Republicans or Democrats, with most by Republicans. The chairman of the House education committee, Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., is by far the most frequent current seeker of K-12 studies.
The actual shape of a final request typically involves some behind-the-scenes talks between the agency and congressional aides. Occasionally, aides may decide to drop a request after the negotiations. "By law, we are required to do work for Congress, specifically the committees and subcommittees," said Mr. Hembra. But, he added, "In order for us to be credible, our work has to be consistent with our core values."
"They will probe you for the questions behind the questions," said one Senate Republican aide, who requested anonymity. Some letters of request, the aide said, have a partisan slant.
"We have a pretty good give-and-take process," Mr. Klatt of the Education and the Workforce Committee said. "GAO will come sit down with us" to discuss the focus of a study, he said. "They'll point out things we would never have thought about." And once the GAO and congressional staff members agree, the agency decides on its research methods and gets working.
Although the GAO's research approach varies, most education reports employ a combination of techniques that can include written surveys and interviews, site visits, and reviews of data and research. Some of the more ambitious projects have involved thousands of surveys or exhaustive data analysis from all 50 states.
Overall, cautions Gerald E. Sroufe, the director of government relations for the American Educational Research Association, the GAO's work is "usually used [by lawmakers] to back up a position that's already in mind." But he welcomes the agency's work.
"I do think they're a major force in rational thinking about issues on the Hill," he said.
Despite the GAO's generally positive reputation, the agency has not been immune from criticism. In 1995, Congress ordered a 25 percent cut in the GAO's budget, which some say stemmed at least in part from certain Republicans' suspicions about the office. It was 1995, after all, when Republicans seized majorities in both houses of Congress after many years in the minority in at least one chamber. (Democrats held a majority in the House from 1954 to 1994.) During debate on the legislative appropriations bill that year, Rep. Doug Bereuter, R-Neb., let his feelings be known.
"This member strongly believes that GAO is an agency where growth has been out of control, and that it is an agency which has not been responsive to individual members, especially to the requests of Republican members during our long tenure in the minority," he said.
Mr. Hembra of the GAO noted that the agency's budget was not the only piece of the legislative appropriation subject to cuts. For example, Congress also eliminated another legislative agency, the Office of Technology Assessment, altogether.
Mr. Hembra stressed that the GAO is keenly sensitive to serving the institution of Congress and both the majority and minority parties within it.
"The leadership of the Hill today might not be the leadership of the Hill tomorrow," he said. He pointed out, however, that while the agency places the same weight on requests from members of both parties, more work is typically done for the majority because it sets the legislative agenda and thus calls the hearings where the GAO might be invited to testify.
In testimony earlier this year, the comptroller general of the United States, David M. Walker, who began serving a 15-year term as the head of the GAO last November, said the budget cuts had led to a substantial reduction in the GAO workforce and other cost-cutting. He also raised concerns that the agency is now dedicating much less time and energy to self-initiated work than in the past. In 1995, 73 percent of its work was spent on congressionally mandated reviews, compared with 96 percent in 1998.
"These self-initiated reviews have contributed significantly to helping the Congress identify and address important emerging and longer-term national issues," argued Mr. Walker, who was nominated to his post by President Clinton and approved by the Senate.
Though observers point to several areas where they believe the GAO's work in recent years has affected K-12 policy debates, school facilities especially stands out.
"A couple years ago, the [school construction] debate was around: Is there a federal role in this?" said Michelle Richards, the director of federal programs at the National School Boards Association. "The GAO study has played a big role in getting us past that" to instead examining how the federal government can help.
In fact, the GAO conducted a series of reports in 1995 and 1996 on school facilities, developing the oft-quoted estimate that $112 billion is needed to repair or upgrade U.S. schools.
In one study, the GAO provided the first-ever state-by-state look at the condition of schools. Now, the agency is designing a new study to examine issues related to school construction and renovation expenditures by states and districts. The GAO has also conducted extensive research on school finance, which led to several reports in 1997 and 1998 often cited in discussions of funding inequities.
Just recently, the GAO delved into the debate over the Education Flexibility Partnership Act, or Ed-Flex, which Congress earlier this year expanded to allow all states to participate. The November 1998 report found mixed results from the program, which at the time served only 12 states, and suggested that, in some cases, Ed-Flex created difficulties in holding districts and states accountable for student achievement.
But the influence of that report remains the subject of debate.
"Everybody spent a lot of time trying to ignore that study, or spin the results," said Bruce Hunter, a senior lobbyist with the American Association of School Administrators.
But Mr. Klatt disagrees, saying the report changed the final bill. "It led to some of the accountability provisions in Ed-Flex," he said.