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 Bushhe of the
"no new taxes" pledge in 1989 in a transition report that attracted
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. "Hes 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. "Hes 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 Ive 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, "Hes
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 didnt 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 criticsusually conservativeswho
claimed that on his watch the GAO had become too ideological and
had lost its traditional impartiality on issues.
The criticism didnt 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
dont 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 peoples attention. Hes
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 arent 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 youre living within your budget,
and whether youre running an effective and efficient program,"
Bowsher also speaks authoritatively on the ways government service
has changed over the decades. He believes that todays public
sector is considerably more contentious than it was during his
first exposure in the mid-1960s.
"Theres 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 agencys 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 doesnt 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."