The GAO’s Unheeded Mandate


I recently came across a mandate that the GAO perform periodic reviews of financial disclosure practices across the government, which appears to be unenforced and unimplemented. (more)

My search started in the House rules from Ellen’s post last week pointing to this house rule, which leads from this search to this doc, from 1990. More clearly, there was language requiring the Comptroller General (head of the GAO) to "No later than December 31, 1992, and regularly thereafter, the Comptroller General shall conduct a study to determine whether the provisions of this title are being carried out effectively" –requiring the GAO to periodically review the effectiveness of those disclosure requirements.

It turns out that "by 1992" was clear enough to get a report written on financial disclosure (in 1990), but "regularly thereafter" appears to be interpreted as "whenever it comes up again," or perhaps "once every 20 years." Could it be that reviewing financial disclosure isn’t a priority? GAO standards actually dictate that legal mandates from Congress come before even congressional requests, so this requirement would seem to sit at the very top of the GAO priority food chain (see page 4 of the GAO’s protocols document ).

While this might seem to apply only to Congress, since I’m linking to house rules, the requirement actually comes from the Ethics in Government Act, which mandates financial disclosure from employees (see subsection (f), here) of all 3 branches of government, up to the President and Vice President, Judges, members of Congress, and several categories of related employees. (For an example of who qualifies for disclosure requirements, see this legislative branch explanation page.)

So what’s really going on? Is this an oversight? — has no member of Congress wondered if maybe the financial disclosure system is ineffective, and that there may be a built in mechanism to review it? Is it an ethics committee style detente, a congressional lack of will to put one’s own house in order? Surely such a disclosure requirement is noticed by members of Congress and governmental employees, since they have to disclose personal details. Do they seek to avoid stricter enforcement?

The spectacular paper The Political Economy of Transparency: What makes disclosure policies effective? warns that "transparency systems, always imperfect political compromises, must improve over time in scope, accuracy, and use in order to be sustainable. We have suggested that they can be improved by strengthening user intermediaries, encouraging effective enforcement, taking advantage of regulatory synergies, and complementing market interactions (Fung, Graham, Weil, 2002)."

I’m wondering whether the General Accountability Office, itself a champion of public information and transparency, has an untapped role to play in demanding accountability through disclosure of financial information from Congress, by performing the reviews of the effectiveness of disclosure programs as they’re charged to do.

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