Government Accountability Office

Government Accountability Office (GAO) in the United States

Introduction to Government Accountability Office

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is an independent agency of the U.S. government formerly known as the General Accounting Office. The name of the office was changed to Government Accountability Office in 2004 to better reflect its mission. The GAO was created in 1921 to audit federal expenditures. The agency is directed by the comptroller general of the United States, who is appointed by the president with the consent of the Senate. The Government Accountability Office seeks to advise and assist Congress in the legislative administration of public funds by providing independent examination of spending operations and programs, and generally to improve efficiency and economy in the government. Its responsibilities extend beyond the national level whenever federal funds are involved.

Under its audit authority, the Government Accountability Office has access to the records of most federal departments, excluding certain independent agencies. Other responsibilities include settlement of federal contracts and examination of transportation rates or claims involving the U.S. government.” (1)


The Government Accountability Office helps the Congress fulfill its constitutional responsibilities and heightens the Federal Government’s accountability and performance.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for the Congress. The GAO is often called the “congressional watchdog” because it investigates how the Federal Government spends taxpayer dollars. The GAO was established as the General Accounting Office by the Budget Accounting Act of 1921 (31 U.S.C. 702). It was renamed the Government Accountability Office pursuant to the GAO Capital Reform Act of 2004 (31 U.S.C. 702 note).


The GAO gathers information that the Congress uses to determine how effective executive branch agencies are at carrying out their missions. Its efforts routinely center on answering basic questions: Are Government programs meeting their objectives? Are they providing services of value to the public? Ultimately, the GAO ensures that the Government is accountable to the American people.

To help Senators and Representatives make informed policy decisions, the GAO provides them with accurate, balanced, and timely information. The Office supports congressional oversight by evaluating Government policies and programs; auditing agency operations to ensure effective, efficient, and appropriate spending of Federal funds; investigating allegations of illegal and improper activities; and issuing legal decisions and opinions.

With virtually the entire Federal Government subject to its review, the GAO issues a steady stream of products, including hundreds of reports and testimonies by GAO officials each year. Its reports or “blue books” meet short-term, immediate needs for information on a wide range of Government operations. These reports help Members of Congress understand emerging, long-term issues with far-reaching effects. The GAO’s work supports a wide variety of improvements in Government operations and legislative actions that save the American people billions of dollars.

Legal Materials

The GAO “is the investigative arm of Congress. Charged with examining matters relating to the receipt and disbursement of public funds, GAO performs audits and evaluations of Government programs and activities.” The GAO was called the “General Accounting Office” until July 7, 2004 when the name was changed to the “Government Accountability Office.”

The GAO Web site posts GAO reports, testimony, rules, selected publications and information about the GAO – plus some surprising extras, such as indexes and a way to request assistance researching GAO materials.

For information and ordering GAO publications, check out the Web site and/or call the Government Accountability Office at 202-512-6000.

Reports: GAO reports are available through the GAO’s Reports and Testimony page from 1955 to the present, plus one each from 1937, 1950 and 1954. They are also available on Lexis (NEWS;GAO) and (GAO-RPTS) from 1994 to the present. An archive of GAO reports covering 1994 to 2008 is posted on FDsys. To search for older reports, use the Library of Congress catalog, using “United States General Accounting Office” and/or “United States Government Accountability Office” as the author.

Comptroller General Decisions: The Comptroller General issues decisions in a number of areas including bid protests and appropriations cases. Bid protests are filed by government contractors “who believe that contracts have been, or are about to be, awarded in violation of the laws and regulations that govern contracting with the federal government.” Appropriations cases concern whether public funds can be used for specific grants and government contracts.

Current sources for Comptroller General decisions include:

  • The GAO web site Search page. Contains published and most unpublished decisions from 1890 to the Present (free);
  • Lexis (GENFED;COMGEN). Published decisions 1921-Present and unpublished decisions 1951-Present;
  • Westlaw (CG). Published decisions 1921-Present and unpublished decisions 1955-Present, plus some earlier unpublished decisions;
  • The CCH Government Contracts Reporter has Comptroller General Decisions; Published decisions, 1986-Present (subscription). The Reporter is available on CD-ROM or through Lexis (CCHGOV;CCHGCR), Westlaw (CCH-GCR) and the CCH’s subscription-based Intelliconnect platform.
  • Additional sources for older Comptroller General decisions include:

  • The print Decisions of the Comptroller General of the United States was the print source for reported CG decisions. Covers 1921-1994 (search Worldcat to find holding libraries);
  • The “U.S. Federal Agency Documents, Decisions, and Appeals” collection on HeinOnline has Decisions of the Comptroller General of the United States in PDF format. Volumes 1-73, covering 1921-1994 (subscription);
  • The GPO’s FDsys, Published decisions 1993-2008 (free). In the Advanced Search, choose “GAO Reports and Comptroller General Decisions.”
  • You can KeyCite Comptroller General decisions on Westlaw to find related CG decisions and judicial opinions.

    The GAO published comprehensive lists of Comptroller General Opinions in 2007. For more information, see Michael Ravnitzky’s article, GAO Releases Database of Comptroller General Decisions.

    Government Accountability Office Background

    Finding the law: Government Accountability Office in the U.S. Code

    A collection of general and permanent laws relating to government accountability office, passed by the United States Congress, are organized by subject matter arrangements in the United States Code (U.S.C.; this label examines government accountability office topics), to make them easy to use (usually, organized by legal areas into Titles, Chapters and Sections). The platform provides introductory material to the U.S. Code, and cross references to case law. View the U.S. Code’s table of contents here.

    Government Accountability Office

    In Legislation

    Government Accountability Office in the U.S. Code: Title 31, Subtitle I, Chapter 7

    The current, permanent, in-force federal laws regulating government accountability office are compiled in the United States Code under Title 31, Subtitle I, Chapter 7. It constitutes “prima facie” evidence of statutes relating to Finance (including government accountability office) of the United States. The reader can further narrow his/her legal research of the general topic (in this case, Money and Public Finance and Government Accountability office of the US Code, including government accountability office) by chapter and subchapter.


    Notes and References

    See Also

    Government Contracts

    Government Accountability Office: Open and Free Legal Research of US Law

    Federal Primary Materials

    The U.S. federal government system consists of executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each of which creates information that can be the subject of legal research about Government Accountability Office. This part provides references, in relation to Government Accountability Office, to the legislative process, the federal judiciary, and the primary sources of federal law (cases, statutes, and regulations).

    Federal primary materials about Government Accountability Office by content types:

    Laws and Regulations

    US Constitution
    Federal Statutory Codes and Legislation

    Federal Case Law and Court Materials

    U.S. Courts of Appeals
    United States courts of appeals, inclouding bankruptcy courts and bankcruptcy appellate panels:

    Federal Administrative Materials and Resources

    Presidential Materials

    Materials that emanate from the President’s lawmaking function include executive orders for officers in departments and agencies and proclamations for announcing ceremonial or commemorative policies. Presidential materials available include:

    Executive Materials

    Federal Legislative History Materials

    Legislative history traces the legislative process of a particular bill (about Government Accountability Office and other subjects) for the main purpose of determining the legislators’ intent behind the enactment of a law to explain or clarify ambiguities in the language or the perceived meaning of that law (about Government Accountability Office or other topics), or locating the current status of a bill and monitoring its progress.

    State Administrative Materials and Resources

    State regulations are rules and procedures promulgated by state agencies (which may apply to Government Accountability Office and other topics); they are a binding source of law. In addition to promulgating regulations, state administrative boards and agencies often have judicial or quasi-judicial authority and may issue administrative decisions affecting Government Accountability Office. Finding these decisions can be challenging. In many cases, researchers about Government Accountability Office should check state agency web sites for their regulations, decisions, forms, and other information of interest.

    State rules and regulations are found in codes of regulations and administrative codes (official compilation of all rules and regulations, organized by subject matter). Search here:

    State opinions of the Attorney General (official written advisory opinions on issues of state law related to Government Accountability Office when formerly requested by a designated government officer):

    Tools and Forms

    Law in Other Regions

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