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Who's keeping government honest?


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Do concerns about the financial stability of the Agricultural Hall of Fame keep you up at night? How about gnawing curiosity about the profitability of Amtrak food and beverage services?

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Be not afraid! The Government Accountability Office is on the job! Whatever your favorite nook or cranny of the federal government, the GAO is there, issuing comprehensive reports on it, such as “The Financial Statement Audit Report for the Agricultural Hall of Fame for 2001 and 2000″ and “Amtrak: Management and Accountability Issues Contribute to Unprofitability of Food and Beverage Service” (take a look for yourself).

Since 1921, the gnomes at the GAO have poked into the most obscure corners of the federal mansion. And they’ve certainly unearthed some interesting findings. Did you know, for instance, that stock assessments of Pacific Groundfish are not entirely reliable yet? Encouragingly, there is little uncertainty range for the biomass estimates of the darkblotched groundfish, though–a sure relief. The GAO issues reports such as this nearly a thousand times a year–about 90 percent of them at the request of Congress. This raises an obvious question: Doesn’t Congress have better things to do than demand studies of the National Ski Patrol? Perhaps you didn’t even realize that there’s such a thing as a National Ski Patrol. Well, their audit was all correct, in case you were curious. And if you want to find out about federal efforts to save the Mojave Desert tortoise, see here. Predation by “ravens, coyotes, domestic dogs, and other animals” is a stark threat.

Although the GAO employs about 3,200 people, the number of people outside of Congress who actually read what they produce is relatively few. They’re certainly prolific though, making ample use of their $463.6 million budget, putting out, for example, 487 reports since the start of 2005, with more coming almost every day.

Substantive work lurks behind some of the strangely titled pieces. I assumed that “Biscuit Fire: Analysis of Fire Response, Resource Availability, and Personnel Certification Standards” was about problems afflicting Aunt Jemima, but it’s actually about a conflagration that burned up a fair portion of Oregon. Who knew? If you name forests after foods, someone’s going to try to cook them.

Reading “Biscuit Fire” taught me not to judge reports by their titles. Consider “Natural Resources: Federal Agencies Are Engaged in Numerous Woody Biomass Utilization Activities, but Significant Obstacles May Impede Their Efforts.” Now Woody Biomass sounded like a new transgendered Sesame Street character, and I was pleased that the federal government had some use for him. But it seems that woody biomass is really a term for small-scale brush, often left in the wake of forest fires. Your federal tax dollars are hard at work trying to find a use for it.

The GAO cares deeply about the nuts and bolts of government–literally. “Quality Assurance: The Fastener Quality Act’s Small Lot Exemption” looks at the lurking danger of substandard replacement nuts and bolts. The report addresses the menace that instead of using high-quality, government linking metal, government agencies might “substitute lower quality, lower cost, ‘hardware store’ fasteners.” The chance of “fastener failure” is very real.

The sporting world is not neglected, what with “Professional Boxing: Issues Related to the Protection of Boxers’ Health, Safety, and Economic Interests.” It can be reasonably certain that this is the only GAO report ever to feature anyone called “Ray ‘Boom-Boom’ Mancini” or include “Comments from the Mohegan Tribal Gaming Commission Athletic Unit.”

Review of Potential Merger of the Library of Congress Police and/or the Government Printing Office Police with the U.S. Capitol Police.” Passing by the Library of Congress every day, in an effort to gauge the real-world effectiveness of GAO reports, I asked a policeman what he thought of this. “Things aren’t bad the way they are.” He was unfamiliar with the GAO and the fact that they had authored a report on his organization. He declined to give his name. I couldn’t find the Government Printing Office Police; they’re presumably hard at work preventing the theft of GAO reports.

The GAO, created in 1921, does not only address issues of recent vintage. A 2004 report, “El Tratado De Guadalupe Hidalgo: Hallazgos y Opciones Posibles Con Respecto a Los Reclamos de Larga Duracion de mercedes de Tierras Comunitarias en Nuevo Mexico,” concerned the government’s mixed record in respecting traditional community land rights, as pledged in the 1848 treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo. Reports en espanol appear occasionally; there are English versions as well, but, well, who would read those?

In all of this talk about content, the reader risks passing over the most arresting feature of the reports: their literary value. Consider the titles of GAO reports. These aren’t titles qua titles; they are titles of action and movement, big-shouldered titles that, of all things, beg for versification. Take this one, for example:

Energy Employees Compensation:

Many claims have been processed

but action is needed

to expedite processing

of claims

requiring

Radiation Exposure estimates

This is the stuff of verse. It shows obvious stylistic sophistication: matching alliteration at the start and the end, subtle internal assonance–”employees” and “needed”–and all other sorts of benefits. The opening line echoes the punch of Eliot’s “Polyphilogprogenitive” with the lines following building irresistibly, fecund with promise of…federal action. This is a poem for Ted Kennedy. Radiation Exposure Estimates. Think about that, Nevada!

As Hugh Kenner said of William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow,” “the lines dangle in equidependency, attracting the attention, so that the sentence in which they are arrayed comes to seem like a suspension system.” “Many claims have been processed but action is needed” hangs in wait of the beautiful succor of “to expedite processing.” Of course, the poem stands incomplete until its magisterial alliteration at the end, which turns the readers’ attention back to the starting alliteration. The end as a road to the beginning–the lesson of Finnegan’s Wake, 600 pages cheaper.

Kenner also asked about “Red Wheelbarrow”: “[T]ry to imagine an occasion for this sentence to be said…it is impossible.”

So it is with GAO reports. Try to imagine an occasion when this, or any other GAO report, might be read. That’s near impossible too.

Anthony Paletta is the editor of the Carrollton Record at Johns Hopkins University and a Collegiate Network intern for NR in Washington, D.C.



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