Monday, February 18, 2008

THE REAL STRAIGHT-TALK EXPRESS

By William Fisher

I usually raise my glass in gleeful celebration every time some senior member of the Bush Administration announces he’s leaving office “to spend more time with his family” or some other lame pro forma Washington excuse.

That usually means he/she is leaving in disgrace. Or yearning for the big bucks on the lecture circuit. Or on his/her way to the slammer.

But today is different.

Today, I lament the departure of one of the most courageous, effective and thoughtful public servants ever to serve the United States.

His name is David M. Walker. Most Americans have never heard of him. His title is Comtroller General of the United States. That’s Comptroller with an M. His job is to head the Government Accountability Office, or GAO. The GAO is the investigative agency of Congress.

Most Americans have never heard of the GAO either.

Pity. Because, in a government of incompetents, spinners, cronies, political hacks, wiretappers and torturers, David Walker’s GAO has been one of the very few bright lights in town.

And he’s a Republican! Imagine me celebrating a departing Republican!

But that’s where the similarity with Dubya ends.

Because David Walker is the kind of Republican who has become an endangered – almost extinct -- species in Bush’s Washington. He’s what the conductor of the Straight-Talk Express pretends to be and what he would like us to believe he is.

A word about the GAO. It used to be called the General Accounting Office. But its name was changed a few years ago to more accurately reflect what it actually does. Which is to hold the government accountable. Its head is by statute appointed by the president for a 15-year term. Which is how Walker got selected by Bill Clinton in 1998. My bet is that Dubya has deep regrets about that decision.

Because holding the government accountable is indeed what GAO has done under David Walker’s leadership. It has investigated government incompetence, waste, fraud and abuse in every Cabinet department and dozens of agencies. The range of subjects it has looked into last year alone is breathtaking. Contractor malfeasance in Iraq and Afghanistan. The failures of FEMA and other agencies to respond adequately to Katrina. The consistently criminal waste by the Pentagon. The failure of the Defense Department and the Veterans Administration to meet minimal standards for providing health care and benefits for our returning warriors. Runaway spending and the absence of even minimal systems to account for that spending. And much, much more.

On behalf of Congress, David Walker and his staff have spoken truth to power.

But, to its great credit, it has resisted being mesmerized by its power to expose. Every GAO report – and there and hundreds of them – tells those with the patience to read not only what’s wrong with a department or a program. It tells those who run these things what they need to do to fix their problems.

This has made the GAO the most agreed-with and most soon-forgotten agency in government. Departments and agencies the GAO has investigated rarely object to its corrective recommendations. In fact, most of them agree. But they rarely take action to implement those recommendations – or they make all the right noises and slow-walk GAO’s suggestions into oblivion.

As for GAO’s masters, the Congress, its members are perfectly delighted to use GAO’s findings to convene “oversight” hearings, adopt non-binding “sense of the House” resolutions, write press releases, and generally hone their grandstanding skills.

And, every once in a while, some actual piece of legislation may arise from a problem illuminated by the GAO. But that’s pretty rare. Politicians have short memories. And they are comforted by the knowledge that the public has less.

That enables them to play their Kabuki Theater roles with Oscar-winning skill – and then do absolutely nothing.

Which, barely having to read between the lines, is why David Walker is leaving his post.

“As comptroller general of the United States, there are real limitations on what I can do and say in connection with key public policy issues, especially issues that directly relate to GAO’s client — the Congress,” he said.

Walker has lived his professional life with clients – before coming to Washington, he headed a major office of a major international accounting firm. But I suspect his private sector clients did a far more conscientious job than our government of following his advice.

So he has chosen to leave his post at the GAO to become the president and CEO of the newly founded Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

“While I love both my job as comptroller general and the GAO,” he said, “I love my country more. And I believe that leading this foundation represents a unique opportunity and will be good for my country. My new position will provide me with the ability and resources to more aggressively address a range of current and emerging challenges facing our country, including advocating specific policy solutions and courses of action.”

In his new incarnation, Walker will oversee the billion-dollar endowment of Pete Peterson – former Commerce Secretary, the founder of the Blackstone group, The Concord Coalition, and legendary advocate for government fiscal responsibility.

“We are at a make-or-break point in American history,” Mr. Peterson said of his new foundation. “The entitlement monster is unfunded. We are dangerously dependent on foreign capital, our health care costs per capita are twice the level of the developed world, he said, and then asked, ” How do you educate a public that has become largely inert?”

It will be up to David Walker to try to find a coherent answer to this question. This is a gargantuan job. There are no short-term fixes, despite what our current presidential wanabees would have us believe.

George Bush and his Executive branch of government have failed abjectly in this mission. Congress has failed. Maybe a private foundation can do better. In his new job, I trust David Walker to continue to speak truth to power, to be as thoughtful, as incisive, and as fearless, as he has been at the GAO.

Even if he’s a Republican!