GAO seeks budget hike to restore staffing from rock-bottom levels

Wednesday - 3/5/2014, 4:33pm EST

Congress' watchdog agency is seeking a slight budget boost next year in order to continue staffing up the agency from the nearly rock-bottom levels it hit over the past few years.

Overall, the Government Accountability Office is requesting about $525 million for fiscal 2015, an increase of about 4 percent, or $19 million, above current levels.

The additional funding would also allow GAO to make upgrades to its aging IT infrastructure and do long-deferred building maintenance at GAO headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C., Comptroller General Gene Dodaro told members of a House Appropriations subcommittee Wednesday.

GAO's budget fell to about $480 million last year after across-the-board sequestration cuts lopped millions from the agency's bottom line.

In January, when Congress finally hammered out final appropriations for the rest of the current year — following agreement on the bipartisan two-year budget deal — lawmakers restored GAO's funding to about $505 million.

That level will allow GAO to boost staffing levels for the first time in three years, to about 2,945 full-time positions, Dodaro told the committee.

"With the support that you've provided us, we're conducting our efforts to rebuild the capacity of GAO," Dodaro said. "We're trying to restore some of the staff that we lost."

All told, the number of GAO employees fell by 15 percent between 2010 and 2013, with the agency hitting its lowest staffing level since 1935 last year.

If Congress approves an additional increase for 2015, that would allow the agency to sustain the staffing increases planned for this year and build toward the agency's ultimate goal of about 3,200 full-time staffers, Dodaro added.

In addition, GAO plans to use the requested infusion of cash to upgrade technology and building operations at the agency.

"Our building is about 60 years old and so it needs some attending to," Dodaro said. "Many of these areas we've deferred over the years as we've dealt with the cuts from the sequester."

GAO seeks to create new audit center

GAO is also seeking permission from Congress to establish a Center for Audit Excellence, which would allow the agency to take on a greater role in developing both domestic and international audit standards.

"In addition to trying to reduce our administrative costs to handle the budget reductions over the past few years, we've been trying to think of ways to exploit our greatest assets," Dodaro said.

Among them is GAO's reputation as "one of the premier audit organizations in the world," he said. "We set standards for how people do audits domestically ... and there's a great demand for our services."

With Congress' approval, GAO could perform audit work or offer training courses for state and local governments and international institutions on a fee basis. This would also provide the agency additional revenue to invest in its workforce.

The proposal would require some modest start-up funding at first — less than $1 million to start — but Dodaro said eventually it would pay for itself thanks to the user fees it would generate. The center would be staffed by retired GAO staffers and other outside employees "and thus, would not detract from or impact the service GAO provides to Congress," GAO's budget proposal stated.

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