General Accounting Office

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General Accounting Office

The General Accounting Office (GAO), created by the Budget and Accounting Act, 1921 (31 U.S.C.A. 41), was vested with all powers and duties of the six auditors and the comptroller of the Treasury, as stated in the act of July 31, 1894 (28 Stat. 162), and other statutes extending back to the original Treasury Act of 1789 (1 Stat. 65). The 1921 act broadened the audit activities of the government and established new responsibilities for reporting to Congress.

The scope of the activities of the GAO was further extended by the Government Corporation Control Act (31 U.S.C.A. 841 [1945]), the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 (31 U.S.C.A. 60), the Accounting and Auditing Act of 1950 (31 U.S.C.A. 65), the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 (31 U.S.C.A. 1151), the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 (31 U.S.C.A. 1301), the General Accounting Office Act of 1974 (31 U.S.C.A. 52c), and other legislation.

The GAO is under the control and direction of the comptroller general of the United States and the deputy comptroller general of the United States, who are appointed by the president with the advice and consent of the Senate for terms of 15 years.

The GAO has the following basic purposes: to assist Congress, its committees, and its members in carrying out their legislative and over-sight responsibilities, consistent with its role as an independent, nonpolitical agency in the legislative branch; to carry out legal, accounting, auditing, and claims-settlement functions with respect to federal government programs and operations as assigned by Congress; and to make recommendations that are designed to provide for more efficient and effective government operations.

Direct Assistance to Congress

The GAO directly assists Congress and its committees, members, and officers upon request. This assistance can come in any of the forms described in the following paragraphs.

Legislation may be enacted to direct the GAO to examine a specific matter; special audits, surveys, and reviews may be performed for the committees, members, or officers of Congress; professional staff members may be assigned to assist committees in conducting studies and investigations; the comptroller general or his or her representatives may testify before committees on matters considered to be within the special competence of the GAO; and committees or members may request comments on, or assistance in, drafting proposed legislation or other advice in legal and legislative matters. Further, the GAO responds to numerous requests from congressional sources for information relating to, or resulting from, its work, and it provides advice on congressional, administrative, and financial operations.

The Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act of 1974 specified numerous additional ways in which the GAO is to assist Congress: (1) provide information, services, facilities, and personnel (as mutually agreed) to the Congressional Budget Office; (2) assist congressional committees in developing statements of legislative objectives and goals and methods for assessing and reporting actual program performance; (3) assist such committees in analyzing and assessing federal agency program reviews and evaluation studies; (4) develop and recommend methods for review and evaluation of government programs; (5) conduct a continuing program to identify needs of committees and members of Congress for fiscal, budgetary, and program-related information; (6) assist congressional committees in developing their information needs; (7) monitor recurring reporting requirements of the Congress; (8) develop, in cooperation with the Congressional Budget Office, the Treasury, and the Office of Management and Budget, an upto-date inventory and directory of sources and information systems for fiscal, budgetary, and program-related information; (9) help committees and members to obtain information from such sources and to appraise and analyze it; (10) develop, with the Congressional Budget Office, a central file of data and information to meet recurring requirements of Congress for fiscal, budgetary, and program-related information; (11) review and report to Congress on deferrals and rescissions of budget authority proposed by the president; and (12) bring suit, where necessary, to ensure the availability for obligation of budget authority.


In general, the audit authority of the GAO extends to all departments and agencies of the federal government. Exceptions to this audit authority principally involve funds that relate to certain intelligence activities.

Where audit authority exists, the GAO has the right of access to, and examination of, any books, documents, papers, or records of the departments and agencies. The law provides that departments and agencies must furnish to the comptroller such general information as he or she may require, including that which is related to their powers, duties, activities, organization, financial transactions, and methods of business.

The GAO has statutory authority to investigate all matters relating to the receipt, disbursement, and application of public funds. Additionally, the audit authority of the GAO covers wholly and partially owned government corporations and certain nonappropriated fund activities. By law, it is authorized and directed to make expenditure analyses of executive agencies in order to enable Congress to determine whether public funds are efficiently and economically administered and expended, and to review and evaluate the results of existing government programs and activities.

The scope of the audit work of the GAO extends not only to the programs and activities that the federal government itself conducts, but also to the activities of state and local governments, quasi-governmental bodies, and private organizations in their capacity as recipients under, or administrators for, federal aid programs that are financed by loans, advances, grants, and contributions. The interest of the GAO also extends to certain activities of those parties that have negotiated contracts with the government.

The audit activities of the GAO also include examining and settling accounts of the certification, disbursement, and collection officers of the federal government, including determinations involving accountability for improper or illegal expenditures of public funds. Balances that the comptroller general certifies are binding on the Executive Branch; however, any settled account can be reviewed on motion by the comptroller general or another interested party.

In its audit work, the GAO makes recommendations for greater economy and efficiency in government operations and for improving the effectiveness of government programs. Within this audit authority is a responsibility to report significant matters to Congress for information and use in carrying out its legislative and executive branch surveillance functions.


The comptroller general has the following statutory responsibilities with respect to the accounting systems of federal agencies:

  • Prescribe the accounting principles, standards, and related requirements to be followed by the agencies
  • Cooperate with federal agencies in developing their accounting systems
  • Approve agency accounting systems when they are deemed adequate and meet prescribed principles, standards, and related requirements
  • Review, from time to time, agency accounting systems in operation
  • Conduct—jointly with the Office of Management and Budget, the Treasury Department, and the Office of Personnel Management—a continuous program to improve accounting and financial reporting in the federal government

By law, the comptroller general cooperates with the secretary of the Treasury and the director of the Office of Management and Budget in developing for use by all federal agencies standardized information and data-processing systems and also standard terminology, definitions, classifications, and codes for federal fiscal, budgetary, and program-related data and information.

Legal Services and Decisions

The legal work of the GAO is centered at the headquarters office in its Office of the General Counsel.

The comptroller general makes final determinations as to the legality of actions taken by federal departments and agencies with regard to accountability for the use of public funds. These determinations are made in connection with actions that are already taken and on an advance basis upon request by certain responsible officers of the government. Decisions of the comptroller general concerning the legality of payments may arise from the audit work of the GAO or may be applied for by the heads of departments or agencies or by certifying and disbursing officers with regard to payments to be made or as a result of congressional inquiries.

The comptroller general also considers questions that arise in connection with the award of government contracts and certain contracts under government grants. Statutory and regulatory procedures precisely define the manner in which these government awards are to be made, and those competing for such awards who believe that requirements have not been met in any particular instance may apply to the comptroller general for a determination.

The legal work of the GAO also covers a wide range of advisory services—to Congress, its committees, and members, with respect to the legal effect of statutory provisions and implications of proposed legislation as well as assistance in drafting legislation; to the Justice Department, primarily in the form of litigation reports on court cases generated by, or related to, the work of the GAO; and to the courts in connection with cases involving the award of government contracts. In addition, there is daily coordination between the staff of the Office of the General Counsel and the audit and operating staffs with regard to the legal consequences of issues raised in the course of reviews of government activities.

Claims Settlement and Debt Collection

The GAO settles claims by and against the United States as required by law. Claims may involve individuals; business entities; or foreign, state, and municipal governments as claimant or debtor. Settlement of these claims by the GAO is binding upon executive branch agencies. However, the comptroller general may review any settled claim on his or her own initiative or at the request of an interested party. Claimants and debtors have further recourse to the Congress or to the courts.

Where an Administrative Agency has been unable to collect a debt due the government, the debt is certified to the GAO as uncollectible. After determining the amount due the United States, the GAO superintends its recovery, and ultimately makes final settlement and adjustment.

Energy Data Verification

Under the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (42 U.S.C.A. 6201), approved December 22, 1975, the comptroller general is empowered to conduct verification examinations of energy-related information developed by private business concerns under certain circumstances delineated in the act. For the purpose of carrying out this authority, the comptroller general may issue subpoenas, require written answers to interrogatories, administer oaths, inspect business premises, and inspect and copy specified books and records. Certain enforcement powers are provided, including, for some types of noncompliance, the power to assess civil penalties and to collect such penalties through civil action.

Rules, Regulations, and Decisions

The comptroller general makes such rules and regulations as deemed necessary for carrying on the work of the GAO, including those for the admission of attorneys to practice before it. Under the seal of the office, he or she furnishes copies of records from books and proceedings thereof, for use as evidence in accordance with the act of June 25, 1948 (62 Stat. 946; 28 U.S.C.A. 1733).

The GAO Personnel Act of 1980, approved February 15, 1980 (94 Stat. 27; 31 U.S.C.A. 52-1), requires the comptroller general to establish an independent personnel management system for employees of the GAO. The system would not be subject to regulation or oversight of executive branch agencies. Employee rights, such as appeals from adverse actions, are protected by creation of a GAO Personnel Appeals Board.

The GAO "Policy and Procedures Manual for Guidance of Federal Agencies" is the official medium through which the comptroller general promulgates principles, standards, and related requirements for accounting to be observed by the federal departments and agencies; uniform procedures for use by the federal agencies; and regulations governing the relationships of the GAO with other federal agencies and with individuals and private concerns doing business with the federal government.

All decisions of the comptroller general of general import are published in monthly pamphlets and in annual volumes.

GAO Reports

As required by law, a list of GAO reports issued or released during the previous month is furnished monthly to Congress, its committees, and its members.

Copies of GAO reports are provided without charge to members of Congress and congressional committee staff members; officials of federal, state, local, and foreign governments; members of the press; college libraries, faculty members, and students; and nonprofit organizations.

Since the late 1990s, the GAO has worked to place more information on its web site. It has placed a large archive of its reports online and publishes current reports to the web site. In addition, it has placed its bid-protest docket online and has established FraudNet, which allows persons to file allegations of government Fraud online.

Further readings

General Accounting Office Website. Available online at

<> (accessed November 10, 2003).


Congress of the United States; Federal Budget; Office of Management and Budget; Treasury Department.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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