The General Accounting Office wants the White House to say who met with Vice President Cheney's National Energy Policy Development Group, who Cheney's group hired and consulted, and at what cost. The GAO is so insistent that it might sue the White House to get the information. What is the GAO, and how does it carry out its investigations?
As "the investigative arm of Congress," the GAO is authorized to investigate any agency or group that spends federal funds. Founded in 1921, the GAO was initially a green-eye shade operation, making sure that government spending was handled legally and properly. But in the '50s, its mission expanded to include performance audits and program evaluations. Last year, the GAO published nearly 1,200 reports and testified more than 260 times before congressional committees.
The GAO receives 35 to 40 requests each week to examine the performance of different federal programs. Some requests come from members of Congress, and others are mandated by law. Because the GAO can't handle every request from members of Congress, it gives first priority to the chairmen and ranking members of congressional committees and subcommittees. Two such members, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., requested the Cheney investigation in April. (Click here to read their letter to the GAO. Adobe Acrobat required.)
If the agency, group, or individual under investigation refuses to cooperate, the GAO issues a formal demand letter, which must be answered in 20 days. (If the entity under investigation won't turn over the requested information, it must give its reasons.) The GAO sent Cheney a demand letter on July 18, only the 32nd demand letter ever issued. (Click here to read that letter. Adobe Acrobat required.) Cheney responded Aug. 2, saying the request interfered with the independence of the executive branch. (Click here to read Cheney's letter. Yes, you'll still need Adobe Acrobat.)
If the agency, group, or individual refuses to comply--as Cheney did--the GAO issues a formal report to Congress and the president, explaining the dispute. After the report is filed, the president has 20 days to turn over the information, do nothing, or issue a "certification letter" stating that providing the information would impair substantially the operations of the government. If the executive branch issues the certification letter, the GAO's investigation concludes, and it's up to Congress to subpoena the information, if it so desires. If the executive branch does nothing, the GAO can sue in federal district court, but that's never happened. The GAO sent its report Friday to Congress, only the fifth such report it has ever filed. That gives President Bush until Sept. 6 to respond. (Click here to read the GAO report in Adobe Acrobat.)
Bonus Explainer: A recent Washington Post profile of Comptroller General David Walker, the head of the GAO, noted that he was appointed by President Clinton, Slate reader Aaron Page points out. If the president appoints the head of the GAO, why doesn't Bush just fire Walker?
The comptroller general is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, but like the head of the Federal Reserve, he is afforded a degree of independence. The comptroller general is appointed to a 15-year term, so Walker could be around until 2013.
Explainer thanks Jeff Nelligan of the General Accounting Office.