QUICK–WHO IS the comptroller general of the United States?

Chances are, no name comes to mind. The head of the General Accounting Office and nation’s chief accountant is relatively low profile.

Charles Bowsher, ’56, who held the post for a full 15-year term, was a bit more visible. He occasionally made headlines as he warned of the problems arising from huge federal budget deficits, the savings and loan crisis, the banking system, and defense procurement issues.

Bowsher, formerly a partner with Arthur Andersen & Co. and one of the early partners of Andersen Consulting, could have ended his career as a highly paid consultant or taken his flair for fiscal management and efficiency to any number of corporations. Instead, he became a vocal proponent of federal fiscal responsibility. For his long service as a public watchdog, Bowsher, who retired in 1996, has been named recipient of the 1998 Distinguished Public Service Alumnus Award.

The nonpartisan GAO audits, investigates, and evaluates federal programs and fiscal operations. Bowsher believed that the office was supposed to focus on the major issues of the nation. Therefore, by the end of the Reagan administration, he was speaking out plainly against the budget deficits run up under the president who had appointed him in 1981.

"It boils down to this: we must save money both by spending it more efficiently and managing it more wisely and we probably will have to raise taxes to restore a starved revenue base," he wrote in a September 1988 op-ed article in the New York Times. He reiterated this to president-elect George Bush–he of the "no new taxes" pledge– in 1989 in a transition report that attracted considerable attention.

How did Bowsher feel about issuing an admonition many viewed as a stinging appraisal of the Reagan era? "I thought it was necessary," he recalled recently. ".I just said these were very large deficits, and we were going to pay huge interest costs if we continued to run up the debt."

The forthrightness Bowsher displayed came as no surprise to those who know him well. "He’s a person of the highest integrity, which today is in short supply," noted Alan Levenson, a senior partner in the Washington, D.C., law office of Fulbright & Jaworsky and a member of the Audit Advisory Committee of the GAO, established by Bowsher. "He’s a person who possesses sound judgment. He understands the need for decision making and makes them."

If one best word describes Bowsher, it is "courageous," says Don Chapin, former senior partner at Arthur Young who worked for Bowsher at the GAO from 1989 to 1996. Serving as comptroller general, he notes, "is really a tough assignment. The comptroller general is responsible to Congress, and his job is to audit the affairs of the administration. It takes a lot of courage to face up to sharp questioning from Congress and to extract the facts and information needed to do the audit of the administration. He had to, for instance, deal with the reluctance of the administration to supply needed information. You have to hang in there; you have to insist."

Bowsher "has probably the highest ethical standards I’ve ever seen in any government employee," says former secretary of defense Melvin Laird, who has known Bowsher for more than 30 years and recommended him for the post of assistant secretary of the navy in 1967. Laird, who currently serves with Bowsher on the five-member Public Oversight Board for the Accounting Profession, adds, "He’s intelligent and an outstanding citizen, but his ethical qualities are above reproach in every way."

One of only hree controller generals in the history of the GAO to serve the full 15-year term, Bowsher left a dramatic impact on the office. Building on efficiency gains achieved during the administration of his predecessor, Elmer Staats, Bowsher increased GAO output while decreasing the staff.

By the end of his term in 1996, the GAO was producing more than 1,000 reports annually, almost double its productivity in 1983. In addition, GAO officials were presenting expert testimony to congressional committees as many as 300 times a year. By one estimate, GAO recommendations resulted in budget reductions, cost avoidances, appropriations deferrals, and revenue enhancements totaling more than $100 billion between 1986 and 1996.

All this was accomplished with a staff that shrank from 5,200 in 1981 to 3,500 in 1996. "The GAO today is as small as it was in 1936," Bowsher reports, adding that he and his staff increased efficiency by improving office operations.

"I promoted the right people who could do the right jobs, and gave them the authority to do their jobs," he recalls. "As computer capabilities were enhanced over the years, we networked the entire operation. And we adopted teleconferencing, which saved a lot of time because people didn’t have to fly in from the West Coast all the time. What we really did was modernize the office."

Personnel reductions, as well as the closure and merging of several field offices, led to budget reductions that promise $1 billion in savings to American taxpayers over a seven-year period from 1996 to 2003.

Bowsher expanded the role of the GAO beyond its traditional audit activities and took strong positions on problems in the banking industry and financial institutions, the farm credit crisis, defense commitments abroad, and other significant, highly publicized issues. Not surprisingly, he was targeted by critics–usually conservatives–who claimed that on his watch the GAO had become too ideological and had lost its traditional impartiality on issues.

The criticism didn’t particularly bother the comptroller general. "I always said we were just providing the facts. We were working on the big issues of the day: the budget deficit, the savings and loan crisis, and cost overruns on defense. And sometimes people don’t get the answers they want." Ideology " was the only way they could criticize us, because we were running such an efficient office," he adds. "I never thought the criticism was valid."

What was important was that he got results. "There was no one more responsible for getting the facts out on [the S & L crisis] to the Congress and the public," Chapin observes. "People were thinking $15 billion or $30 billion. Bowsher came out with $175 billion to half a trillion. That got people’s attention. He’s the person most responsible for putting the facts on the table and stimulating action to resolve the crisis."

After graduating from the GSB (along with his twin brother, Jack, now retired director of training for IBM), Bowsher joined Arthur Andersen. He spent most of his career with the accounting giant, with a stint in the middle as assistant secretary of the navy for financial management for Defense Secretary Clark Clifford from 1967 to 1972. After two decades each in public and private service, he says that although there are some clear distinctions, the two sectors aren’t as different as some believe.

"The magnitude of the issues is quite different," he notes. "The issues you deal with in the public sector are the biggest issues facing the country." In public service, he adds, "Your decision making process is much more visible, so you have to be skilled in dealing with the press and with elected officials, who are really your board of directors."

Still, the issues confronted in both arenas tend to be fundamentally the same. Those include "whether you’re living within your budget, and whether you’re running an effective and efficient program," he says.

Bowsher also speaks authoritatively on the ways government service has changed over the decades. He believes that today’s public sector is considerably more contentious than it was during his first exposure in the mid-1960s.

"There’s more hostility in the system," he remarks. "In the 1960s, people worked in a more cooperative manner on many of the issues. The challenges were in presenting the information to them. [Over the years] the issues became more political, and being an independent and objective adviser therefore became more difficult."

Two years into his retirement, Bowsher remains active in many professional organizations and serves on advisory commissions for a number of schools of business and public administration, but has also found time to work on his golf game.

Reflecting on his tenure at GAO, what he is proudest of, he says, is the agency’s contribution to solving the S&L and budget deficit crises. "Today, we have the deficits under control and our banking system is in good shape, compared to where we were in the late 1980s and early ’90s," he observes. "I feel the GAO played a major role in achieving some of those successes.

"The Japanese have had similar problems since we have, but have had little success in solving them. It takes government leadership to deal with those kinds of problems."

Some have suggested that heading the GAO appears a thankless task. Bowsher doesn’t see it that way. "You have independence," he says, "and you have a good staff to work on some of the most important issues facing the country."

-Jeffrey Steele

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