How GAO Built Its Dream House

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Chapter 3, Why Did GAO Need More Office and Warehouse Space?

From its earliest days, GAO, its mission and its work force have been affected by national and world events. After the stock market crash of 1929, the United States entered a lengthy period of economic depression. During President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, federal money poured into relief and recovery efforts aimed at fighting the depression. The expansion of government agencies created a blizzard of paperwork for GAO's employees. This workforce bore little resemblance to the professional audit and evaluation staff of the present day GAO. Charged with a broad mandate to examine how federal funds are spent, the early GAO took a control oriented, legalistic view of its charter. From 1921 until the 1940s, the Office focused on examining individual expenditure vouchers and considering claims for and against the government. Historians refer to this as the "voucher checking" era. A scholar of public administration even described the GAO of old as "a prodigious paper mill."

What did voucher checking mean? Vouchers were forms used by executive branch administrative officials and disbursing officers to record information on spending. Disbursing agents made payments based on the vouchers, then sent the forms to GAO for checking. In addition to auditing vouchers and processing claims, GAO settled accounts, reviewed contracts, issued opinions and decisions on the legality of expenditures, and prescribed accounting forms and systems for the executive branch of government.

The Office performed its voucher checking centrally. This meant federal departments and agencies had to send their vouchers to Washington for audits. The agency's auditors first began doing fieldwork in the mid-1930s, as GAO looked at government agriculture programs in Kentucky and several southern states. Although GAO worked primarily in Washington, almost all of its assignments then were initiated within the agency rather than by requests from members of Congress. In fact, as late as 1965, only ten percent of the effort of GAO's professional staff went toward providing direct assistance to the Congress.  As GAO's work changed to meet Congressional needs, the number rose to 40% by 1981 and to over 70% in 1995.

GAO clerks, Pension Building, Washington Post photo, copyright 1940

GAO’s clerks examining vouchers. Photo (c) 1940, The Washington Post. Reprinted with permission.

Until the late 1940s, many of GAO's employees were voucher auditors, claims clerks  and freight rate examiners. The United States' entry into World War II placed an enormous paperwork burden on the Office. GAO reviewed defense contracts and audited the accounts of Army and Navy disbursing officers. Its freight rate examiners had to review a blizzard of transportation vouchers as the government used the nation's rails and roads to carry freight and troops.

The law required GAO to examine all paid government transportation bills, to determine any overcharges, and to request refunds from the carriers. Although GAO's employees put in long hours and the workforce expanded to hit an all-time high of nearly 15,000 by late 1945, the agency could not keep up with the demands of the traditional central voucher audit. GAO faced a backlog of 35 million vouchers when the war ended in 1945. In its annual report for 1947, the Office reported that it had reconciled 490 million checks and audited 92,000 accountable officers' accounts, 5 million transportation vouchers, 1.5 million contracts, and 260 million postal money orders.

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