What does a Comptroller General do?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2019
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The Comptroller General is the head of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in the United States. The GAO is often referred to as the watchdog of federal government because it is responsible for monitoring how funds are utilized and for making the government publicly accountable for its financial activities. Similar job positions are found in other governments which utilize agencies similar to the GAO for oversight of government activities in the interests of accountability and transparency.

The GAO has been around since 1921, when the legislature determined that such an agency was needed to keep the government operating efficiently and effectively. By law, the Comptroller General is appointed by the President of the United States for a 15 year term. If the Comptroller General needs to vacate the office, she or he appoints an Acting Comptroller to step in so that the GAO will not be without a leader.

One responsibility of the Comptroller General is to testify before the legislature on matters pertaining to government spending. The legislature can request that the Comptroller attend hearings or the Comptroller can indicate that he or she has a report which needs to be filed with Congress. In addition, the Comptroller General provides written audits of government spending which are furnished to the President, Congress, and other key members of government.


The Government Accountability Office keeps extensive records and it has auditing powers which allow it to investigate if it feels that particular financial operations are inefficient or suspect. The GAO may decline to sign off on reports which it feels are incomplete or inaccurate. Lack of endorsement from the Comptroller General and the GAO can indicate that there is reason to believe that an agency, activity, or document is not as transparent and accurate as it should be.

To become the Comptroller General, someone needs to be politically reliable in addition to highly experienced. Many have degrees in accounting, economics, and related fields in addition to years of experience working in the Government Accountability Office in various positions. Because the Comptroller General is trusted with very sensitive information, she or he must also not pose a security risk or have a conflict of interest. When a new Comptroller General needs to be appointed, a Congressional Committee meets to develop a list of nominees which is sent to the President, and the President returns with the name of the person she or he believes should be appointed to the position.


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