Government Accountability Office / GAO / Comptroller General (

From the Congressional Glossary – Including Legislative and Budget Terms

Government Accountability Office / GAO / Comptroller General

Government Accountability Office Seal
Government Accountability Office Seal

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is an independent, nonpartisan legislative agency that works for Congress. Often called the “congressional watchdog,” GAO investigates how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars. The head of GAO, the Comptroller General of the United States, is appointed to a 15-year term by the president from a slate of candidates Congress proposes.


GAO: Comptroller General Testifies to U.S. House on GAO’s 2017 High Risk List


In response to requests from committees or members or in fulfilling its legal and legislative responsibilities, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) provides reports, testimony, and briefings based on its audits and evaluations of government agencies, programs, and activities. Its work is often used by congressional committees in their oversight and investigatory roles, and GAO’s work might well be the source of legislative provisions in reauthorization and other legislation. GAO also provides Congress with legal analyses and advice related to legislative proposals, legislative drafting, and potential policy changes to specific government agencies, programs, and activities. For an explanation of the criteria and procedures used by GAO to undertake work for Congress, see GAO’s Congressional Protocols, available on the GAO web site: <>, then search for “Congressional Protocols.” (“Congressional Protocols” search 9/16/17 to 9/16/18.)

Testimony and completed reports (unless classified) are quickly made available to the public in print and through GAO’s web site, although GAO may delay release of a report for up to thirty days if a congressional requestor asks for a delay. Lists and finding aids on the web site assist the users in identifying useful reports and other GAO documents. GAO also provides notices of newly released reports and testimony via email and other means.

The laws under which GAO operates provide it with broad investigatory powers and broad access to agencies’ information. Its authority and the interdisciplinary expertise that its audit and evaluation teams bring together enable GAO to measure the achievement of goals and objectives in federal programs, determine whether federal funds are being spent efficiently, and ensure compliance with federal law. Because of its work, GAO has developed a number of manuals that are available to the public. In addition to responsibilities for special investigations, accounting standards, and other work affecting the executive branch, GAO reports to Congress pursuant to specific laws.

GAO is headed by the comptroller general. After receiving a list of candidates from a special bicameral, bipartisan commission, the president nominates the comptroller general to a fifteen-year term; the presidential appointment is subject to the Senate’s confirmation. Until July 2004, the agency’s name was the General Accounting Office. The General Accounting Office was established by the 1921 Budget and Accounting Act, which also established the Bureau of the Budget, now called the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).


Understanding the role of the inspector general


GAO works at the request of congressional committees or subcommittees or is mandated by public laws or committee reports. It also undertakes research under the authority of the Comptroller General. GAO supports congressional oversight by

  • Auditing agency operations to determine whether federal funds are being spent efficiently and effectively;
  • Investigating allegations of illegal and improper activities;
  • Reporting on how well government programs and policies are meeting their objectives;
  • Performing policy analyses and outlining options for congressional consideration; and
  • Issuing legal decisions and opinions, such as bid protest rulings and reports on agency rules.

Also see Government Printing Office/ Government Publishing Office (GPO); Oversight; § 4.130 Legislative-Branch Support Agencies, § 4.131, Requesting GAO Assistance, § 7.10 Key Budget Process Laws, § 8.70 Congress and the Executive: Oversight and Investigation, in Congressional Deskbook.







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