David M. Walker is a man on a mission. Or, more accurately, a tour: the Fiscal Wake-Up Tour. As Comptroller General of the United States, Walker has been a vocal critic of the state of America’s balance sheet. Now, as part of a road show bent on educating citizens about the deficit and other budgetary crises, Walker delivers that message far and wide. After 10 years at the helm of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), Walker recently decided that he could more effectively tackle that mission from the private sector; in March he became president and CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, an organization devoted to finding solutions to a range of “sustainability challenges.” Despite spending a decade in Washington, D.C., Walker is no bureaucrat. “I’m an innovator, a transformational leader,” he says. “Once you get to the point where you’ve achieved much of that, and where the focus becomes continuous improvement, I can do that, but that’s not my highest and best [contribution].”
You have five years left on your term. Why leave now?
[One of my goals when I came to the GAO] was to achieve a down payment on our large and growing fiscal imbalance and also make progress on several other key sustainability challenges: health care, entitlements, balance of payments, and so on. And I’ve come to the realization that to be successful will take specific solutions, more-aggressive coalition building, and much more aggressive grassroots efforts designed to increase the pressure on Washington to act sooner rather than later. And there are very real limits to what I can and should do [in that regard] as Comptroller General of the United States.
You’re leaving before the GAO ever issues an opinion on the government’s consolidated financial statements. What’s the holdup?
Largely due to financial-management challenges within the Department of Defense, it’s pretty clear that the GAO is not going to be able to express an opinion on the consolidated financial statements as a whole until after my 15-year term. In fact, the current target date for the DoD is 2017.
Considering what a moving target the DoD is, do you believe it can ever get done?
It’s possible. It’s the tail on the dog; it’s going to wag last. One of the real questions about the Department of Defense that remains unanswered is who will assume responsibility for the audit? It’s likely that the GAO will have to assume it, for several reasons. Number one, there’s probably not a major [audit] firm that would be deemed to be independent, since so many are doing other work within Defense. Second, there are not that many firms that have the capacity to do it. Third, the Inspector General’s office would need to be involved, but it doesn’t have the capacity either. Besides, the DoD is highly material to the consolidated financial statements, and the GAO has a responsibility to express an opinion on those statements.