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GENERAL ACCOUNTING OFFICE 1. Mission
The office of the Comptroller General of the United States is an independent establishment charged by law with the settlement and adjustment, independently of the executive departments, of all claims and demands whatever by the government of the United States or against it, and all accounts whatever in which the government of the United States is concerned, either as debtor of creditor, and is vested with all powers and duties previously conferred or imposed by law upon the former Comptroller of the Treasury and the six Auditors of the Treasury Department; also with the duty of keeping the personal ledger accounts of disbursing and collecting officers; of reporting to Congress delinquency in rendering accounts; and of certifying balances, which are final and conclusive, upon the executive branch of the government.
2. History 1
The organic act is the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, which is amendatory of the Dockery Act, and many earlier enactments prescribing the duties of the accounting officers from the very beginning of the government. Prior to the Constitution itself the accounting officers were required to perform well-defined duties which have not been materially changed. In 1817 those duties were broadly defined in what later became section 236 of the Revised Statutes, amended by the Budget and Accounting Act, namely, to settle and adjust all claims and demands by or against the United States, and all accounts in which the United States are concerned, either as debtors or creditors. In 1868 the Congress saw fit to direct that the final action of the accounting officers should be conclusive upon the executive branches of the government and in the Budget and Accounting Act it was provided that the powers and duties conferred and imposed upon the General Accounting Office should be performed without direction from any other officer than the Comptroller General.
The fundamental law of the land gives to Congress exclusive power to appropriate money, and it has been held, as would appear to be obvious, that the power to appropriate carries with it the power to specify the purposes for which the money may be used, and whether, if at all, an accounting therefor shall be required. Even under the Confederation there was an accounting system. It was established by the Ordinance of September 26, 1778,5 which provided for a Comptroller, an Auditor, a Treasurer, and two Chambers of Accounts. The Auditor was required to receive all claims brought against the United States for money lent, expended, or advanced, goods sold or purchased, services performed, or work done, and to refer them to one of the Chambers of Accounts.
1 See Barber v. Hetfield (C. C. A. Ninth Circuit) 4 F.(20) 245.
4 United States v. McDougall, 121 U. S. 89, 7 S. Ct. 850, 30 L. Ed. 861; New York Consol, Card Co. v. United States, 20 Ct. Cl. 174; Shipman v. United States, 18 Ct. Cl. 138. 6 Vol. XII, Journals of the Continental Congress, pp. 956 to 961.
No money could be secured from the public treasury, except upon a warrant countersigned by the Comptroller. Said requirement appeared in the Act of September 2, 1789,6 organizing the Treasury Department, was continued in the Acts of March 3, 1817," and July 31, 1894,8 reorganizing the accounting offices of the Treasury, and, under the Act of June 10, 1921,9 amending and reorganizing the accounting system, exists to-day as a duty of the Comptroller General of the United States.
The Comptroller General, who, by the Act of June 10, 1921,9 succeeded the former Auditors and Comptroller of the Treasury, is endowed with large powers and responsibility, and it is his sworn duty under the law to determine the availability of general appropriations and whether any sum is properly payable therefrom. 10
The Ordinance of September 26, 1778,5 also required the accounting officers to audit and settle claims and accounts against the United States; that is, determine whether the payments claimed or the payments made for which credit was requested against funds advanced were authorized by law. The accounting officers under the Constitution have also had that power and duty continued and imposed on them by the several statutes organizing and reorganizing the accounting system; that is, the Acts of September 2, 1789,8 March 3, 1817,7 July 31, 1894,8 and June 10, 1921,9 supra. A good description of this function is found in the opinion of the Court of Claims in McKnight v. United States. 11
These settlements are made by statute conclusive on all executive officers of the United States.12
The following is an outline of the various important stages in the development of the accounting system.
1789: Accounting system organized, with one Comptroller and one Auditor.13 1792: Accountant of War Department authorized.14 1817: Office abolished.15 1798: Accountant of Navy Department authorized.16 1817: Office abolished.
6 Vol. XII, Journals of the Continental Congress, pp. 956 to 961.
12 Act March 30, 1868 (15 Stat. 54), now in section 304, Act June 10, 1921 (Comp. St. Ann. Supp. 1923, § 400%b). Cf. Winnisimmet Co. v. United States, 12 Ct. Cl. 319; Martin v. Supervisors of Greene County, 29 N. Y. 647; Carroll v. Board of Police of Tishomingo County, 28 Miss. 38; Green v. Purnell, 12 Md. 329; People ex rel. Dewey W. Board of State Auditors, 32 Mich. 191; People ex rel. Ambler V. Auditor General, 38 Mich. 746.
13 Act Sept. 2, 1789 (1 Stat. 65).
1812: Commissioner of General Land Office empowered to audit returns relative to public lands.17 1849: Commissioner transferred to Interior Department; power continued.18 1894: Accounts of Interior Department to Auditor for that Department.”
1816: A Commissioner to pass upon claims for property lost, captured, or destroyed in the military service of the United States was created.19 1818: Duties transferred to Third Auditor.
1816: Additional accountant in War Department authorized.20 1817: Office abolished. 15
1817: Two Comptrollers and five Auditors provided for, viz.: First Comptroller, Second Comptroller, First Auditor, Second Auditor, Third Auditor, Fourth Auditor, Fifth Auditor.
1836: Sixth Auditor, or Auditor for the Post Office Department created. 21
1849: Commissioner of Customs, sometimes referred to as “Third Comptroller," established.22 1894: Office of Commissioner of Customs abolished.
1894: Accounting system reorganized, with one Comptroller and six Auditors, viz.: Comptroller of the Treasury, Auditor for the Treasury Department, Auditor for the War Department, Auditor for the Interior Department, Auditor for the Navy Department, Auditor for the State and Other Departments, Auditor for the Post Office Department. 1921: All offices abolished. 1
1921: Office of Comptroller General created, an independent establishment, taking over duties of Comptroller of Treasury and six Auditors of the Treasury Department. 3. Activities
(a) Direct settlement and adjustment of claims by the United States or against it.
(b) Settlement and adjustment of accounts of fiscal officers.
(c) Upon the request of heads of executive departments and establishments, making original constructions of law authorizing expenditure of funds, rendering advance decisions to them and to disbursing officers on questions involved in payments to be made; reviewing, upon own motion, audited settlements of accounts and claims.
(d) Prescribing forms, systems, and procedures for administrative appropriation and fund accounting in the departments and establishments.
1 See Barber v. Hetfield (C. C. A. Ninth Circuit) 4 F.(20) 245. 2 Act June 10, 1921, title 3 (42 Stat. 24). 16 Act March 3, 1817 (3 Stat. 366). 16 Act April 30, 1798 (1 Stat. 553). 17 2 Stat. 716. 18 9 Stat. 395. 19 3 Stat. 261. 20 Act April 29, 1816 (3 Stat. 322). 21 Act July 2, 1836 (5 Stat. 80). 22 9 Stat. 396.