Much of what most Americans know about Washington’s wasteful ways, they know because of the Government Accountability Office (formerly the General Accounting Office), an apolitical arm of Congress that audits and investigates federal agencies and activities.
But whether GAO will remain the credible, nimble, relatively objective and independent watchdog it’s been, or become just another lethargic and bloated federal bureaucracy, is now open to question.
After a long battle, GAO analysts last week voted to become members of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. GAO head David Walker, who was badgered by congressional Democrats over his resistance to the change, pledged to work with the new union, making the best of things.
But it may well be the beginning of a downhill slide for the agency — just as unionism accompanied the stagnation and decline of every other industry or entity in which it’s taken hold.
That would be a blow to average taxpayers, who will be losing an important ally in the fight against government waste, fraud and mismanagement.
“This is a great and historic day for GAO,” said one analyst who backed the union. “We need to restructure the incentives in this agency so that the talents and gifts of each employee are utilized to the maximum.”
But it’s likely a union will have the opposite effect. Experience shows that unions are hostile to restructuring incentives so the talents and gifts of each employee are utilized to the maximum. Just look at the hostility teachers unions show toward merit or performance pay.
Unions aren’t interested in maximizing talents or “utilization,” but in maximizing compensation for members, while minimizing performance, productivity and workload.
Did any heavily unionized American industry ever become more competitive or productive as a result? The answer is obvious. Will the management and efficiency experts inside GAO maintain their edge, once the inertia, complacency and poor productivity that characterize union shops take root? We doubt it.
Central to GAO’s effectiveness as a watchdog is the perception that it operates in an apolitical fashion, even though it answers to Congress.
But unions are political animals. Most of them strongly support the Democratic Party (and vice-versa, which explains why Walker was pressured by Congress to go along with the change). Some politicking inevitably will creep into the workplace, despite federal rules against it. And this could over time alter the objectivity and focus of GAO’s work.
Will unionized GAO analysts be less likely to highlight federal workplace problems linked to the presence of unions? Will a strong union/Democratic Party bias toward big government begin to bias GAO’s work, or moderate the search for waste and inefficiency, lest the reputation of government agencies or programs suffer? We fear this could happen.
According to one report, GAO analysts hope the new union fights for closer ties between them and congressional committee staff. These interactions were limited by former Comptroller General Charles Bowsher, probably with an eye toward maintaining GAO’s independence. We would be wary of such a change. These committees are highly politicized entities, which push the partisan agendas of the party in charge.
Having committee staff and GAO analysts working hand-in-hand will undermine GAO’s independence and could taint its work.
Once that happens, its effectiveness as an honest broker and nonpartisan watchdog is destroyed. It then becomes just another attack dog for the party in charge.