Arnold Kling  

The Case for a Strong Government Auditor

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In an essay, I write,


An independent auditor has some obvious potential problems. On the one hand, it could be ineffectual if it turns out to be weak relative to the independent agencies, or captured by them. On the other hand, it might become too powerful, evolving into a sort of super-agency itself. Finally, it could become just another layer in the bureaucracy, not adding value but absorbing resources and adding to costs.

Even so, I favor the idea. Key agencies, such as the Federal Reserve and the Congressional Budget Office, are highly inbred. Such organizations are not good at recognizing flaws in their standard modes of operation.

When you bash the idea, also try proposing a better alternative. Note that "refuse to accept the reality of the administrative state" is not necessarily a better alternative.


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
Thucydides writes:

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

david writes:

The custodes can watch other custodes and their charges at the same time. The balance-of-powers US approach is quite suited to overlapping custodians.

Chris Koresko writes:

The system of checks and balances was designed to prevent the emergence of tyranny by dividing power among branches with different characters and bases of power. If I understand the article, the independent auditor is intended to avoid the emergence of complacency and institutional incompetence rather than tyranny. But tyranny seems much easier to recognize than incompetence, at least with regard to a lot of the activities in our modern regulatory agencies. For example, it's easy for the layman to recognize some of the abuses being committed by the EPA against private citizens, but it's much harder to evaluate the scientific and economic tradeoffs of their industry-wide regulations.

For the independent auditor to do that, it would have to be staffed with people expert in a very wide range of fields. As the article notes, it would need a great deal of prestige and support from the President if its recommendations were to have any realistic chance of being taken seriously. It would need broad authority to do deep inspection of the internal workings of most of the executive branch, including parts that handle very security-sensitive information. It would have to have a high level of objectivity and independence, and it would have to maintain them over the long haul, if it were to earn and keep the trust of the public.

These characteristics make it sound a lot like the "angels" of the Federalist.

Kevin Dick writes:

It seems like the problem here is essentially how to design a guerrilla organization--someone with tremendous incentive to identify important institutional flaws, but without the resources to become a separate bureaucracy.

You want them to focus on egregious problems and not sweat the (relatively) small stuff.

My first instinct would be to give them a lot of authority (e.g., investigatory powers) and visibility (e.g., guaranteed public Congressional hearings), but not very much money (e.g., cap their funding in the authorization bill).

Peter H writes:

I think a slightly narrower, but more feasible institution would be a standing grand jury, empowered only to investigate and issue indictments / presentments against elected officials or senior staff of agencies of the US government.

The way I'd structure it would be to have the GJ be under the control of the DC district court, with a permanent special prosecutor appointed by the chief judge of the district court, and not beholden to the DOJ. The jurors would be selected from the jury pool, but be given the option to opt-out of duty on the special GJ in favor of being in the voir dire pool for a standard GJ.

To allow the grand jurors to devote the appropriate time to the process, I'd make the position be full time and paid at 150% of the median salary in the DC metro area. This would give an incentive for people to not try to shirk duty on the jury.

The advantage of this is that it a.) works within the existing legal framework of the US legal system, b.) the grand jury structure allows a high rate of turnover among the decision making participants, to prevent capture, c.) under the US constitution, grand juries are incredibly powerful institutions. They can subpoena documents, force people to testify, and deliberate in secret. d.) The court system in the US is probably the least corrupt and most competently run component of the federal government, and lifetime tenure for judges is a strong bulwark against political influence.

The disadvantage is that the GJ is limited to enforcing criminal laws. Incompetence isn't a crime, and so this would only be able to solve problems where there's a crime going on. Also, the President's pardon power means that it may not be as powerful check on the executive as we'd like.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

The Watchers are either independent, or they are bound by rules. "Independent" means political, which is not independent. "Bound by rules" means gameable, which is meaningless independence. Pick your poison.

Witness the breathtakingly cynical manipulation of the 10-year budget horizon during the passage of Obamacare. The Watchers (OMB, CBO) were bound by law to crank the number on a ludicrous budget which was then trumpeted as solemn proof of the fiscal virtue of Obamacare.

Rules can also be wrong. Thus, tax cuts are not allowed to pay for themselves with higher revenues through growth and compliance. This rule allows Democrats to score tax cuts as "spending".

John Fast writes:

To me, it's all about the incentives that the auditors have, and also the incentives people have to listen to them.

For example, if the auditors are paid a bonus for identifying a way to improve efficiency or performance, then I think they will do a good job and I believe that capture and other worries are completely unfounded.

On the other hand, if members of *current* agencies were paid bonuses for improving performance, we wouldn't need an auditing agency in the first place.

I'm not sure what you mean by the idea of the auditing agency getting too powerful. If you mean they will force changes that aren't good ideas, obviously that will not happen if they get penalized if their recommendations make things worse.

allen writes:

There is a good deal to be said in favor of the Hippocratic approach in that the consequences of adding a new, and powerful, entity to government in order to do Good Things(TM) carries with it the possibility that Very Bad Things(TM) will happen. Where the stakes are very high and the route to the goal anything but clear doing nothing looks much the safer alternative.

It isn't as if there aren't bags of amateurs currently, doing this job. This web site is an example of one. There are, oh, lots more and always have been.

So if we've got lots of unpaid help enthusiastically doing the job of keeping an eye on government what's the advantage versus an agency of government with the frightening degree of power an auditor would inevitably enjoy? What are the checks and balances on this entity that would prevent it from becoming abusive of the power it wields?

Matt C writes:

You could take a look at examples of independent commissions and civilian review boards and see how they work in practice and what's good/not good about them.

I don't have the sense that these do a great deal of good. My lazy and cynical impression is that these sorts of things are announced to a great deal of fanfare and don't actually make any significant difference in the long run. But, there might be some exceptions out there.

> Note that "refuse to accept the reality of the administrative state" is not necessarily a better alternative.

I think this is an implied part of the idea behind the liberaltarian project. For better or worse, Big Washington (and an electorate that supports it) is here to stay, we have to accept that as our starting premise if we're going to talk about moving the needle toward liberty.

Mike Rulle writes:

Too clever by half. You know better than anyone how intractable this problem can be. So just because we cannot come up with an obvious solution does not make your idea any more plausible.

I have always thought these kinds of solutions are a masked version of just assuming the problem away. Its why I never liked Plato's Republic. If we already knew the truth, his Republic becomes a simple mechanical exercise. The problem is how do we give power to a group when we cannot know they know the truth anymore than Buckley's phone book people. Except they are worse, because they think they do. Sort of like Brussels, or in really bad cases, Pol Pot.

I prefer to stick with our known political imperfections and let competition get the best result it can. We can all be fooled some of the time, and some can be fooled all of the time, but all of us cannot be fooled all of the time.

I prefer that to "genius" technocrats. I do not think a shortage of analysis is our problem.

DoctorT writes:

The independent auditor idea is like trying to control a rogue elephant by running alongside and scolding him.

We have three branches of federal government that do not follow the Constitution and thereby defeat the system of checks and balances. Adding a fourth component will not work even if the independent auditor is granted power over the executive branch: the independent auditor eventually will fail as badly as the other three branches. Also, presidents such as Obama (who repeatedly ignores the Constitution) will pay no heed to an independent auditor.

The solution to mismanaged, massive government is not more management, it is less government. Unfortunately, that's not going to happen until after our national government collapses.

Dan writes:

"The way I'd structure it would be to have the GJ be under the control of the DC district court, with a permanent special prosecutor appointed by the chief judge of the district court, and not beholden to the DOJ. The jurors would be selected from the jury pool, but be given the option to opt-out of duty on the special GJ in favor of being in the voir dire pool for a standard GJ.

To allow the grand jurors to devote the appropriate time to the process, I'd make the position be full time and paid at 150% of the median salary in the DC metro area.
"

You are surely a left winger... The DC metro area is the most polically hard-left place in the US, I note as a DC Metro area resident. The left garners > 90% of the vote here. What a nice way to ensure that the polical left has no accountability while the political right gets a double dose? I thought that's what mainstream media was for.

May I suggest rural Utah instead as the home for this Grand Jury?

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