October 30, 1998
The Federal Government until a few years ago made little use of financial statements and had no accounting standards that were generally accepted throughout the Government.
Practice before 1990
Standards. -- GAO issued accounting standards in the 1950s derived from commercial practice, but OMB and others did not believe that a Legislative agency had the constitutional authority to set standards for the Executive Branch. Critics of GAO's standards did not believe they were adequately designed to provide useful information on the operations and financial condition of the Federal Government.
Statements. -- Most Federal agencies did not issue financial statements. Government corporations were the main exception, required by law to issue audited financial statements prepared according to commercial practice. The Treasury Department compiled consolidated financial statements for the U.S. government since 1974, but they were unaudited.
Improvements since 1990
Two interrelated steps were taken in 1990 that laid the foundation for issuing audited financial statements prepared according to Federal accounting standards.
Standards. -- The first step was an agreement by the Director of OMB, Secretary of Treasury, and Comptroller General to establish a Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board (FASAB), which would recommend concepts and standards to the three principals. When accepted by all three, they become requirements for the Federal Government. FASAB consists of nine members, one from each of the three principal agencies, one from CBO, two from other Executive branch agencies, and three from the private sector or state and local government. FASAB models its operations on the "due process" procedures developed by FASB (Financial Accounting Standards Board) for the private sector and GASB (Governmental Accounting Standards Board) for state and local governments.
FASAB has recommended two statements of concepts and ten statements of standards, all of which have been signed by the principals. The concepts provide guidance for developing standards in accordance with specified objectives of Federal financial reporting and for developing a reporting model; the standards define recognition and measurement of most assets, liabilities, expenses, and revenues and the disclosure of related information. Almost all of the issued standards are effective for the FY 1998 financial statements. The standard for property, plant, and equipment is effective as of FY 1998 and includes a requirement to disclose information about deferred maintenance.
FASAB builds upon other accounting standards. However, it is setting standards for a unique entity, the Federal Government; and it seeks to meet the information needs of internal as well as external users, unlike other standard setters. For example, unlike others, it has set standards for cost accounting and for supplementary information on expenses incurred to finance R&D, human capital, and physical assets owned by state and local governments.
The chairman of FASB must be a public members, and both persons who have held that position had previous experience on GASB or FASB. The first chairman was Elmer Staats, former Comptroller General and subsequently a member of GASB. The present chairman is David Mosso, who served two terms as a member of FASB and was vice-chairman during part of his second term. Another public member, Martin Ives, was vice-chairman of GASB for several years. (FYI -- Both Mosso and Ives testified before the Commission in May.)
Statements. -- The second step was the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990, which required a pilot program for agencies to begin preparing and auditing financial statements. The Government Management Reform Act of 1994 required that the 24 cabinet departments and major independent agencies prepare audited financial statements beginning with 1996. The agency's Inspector General may audit the financial statements or contract with a private accounting firm to do the job. The quality of the audit opinions has steadily improved but is not yet satisfactory. By 1997, 4 of the 14 cabinet departments and 6 of the 10 major independent agencies had received unqualified audit opinions on their financial statements. Twenty of the 24 agencies are committed to obtaining unqualified opinions on their FY 1999 statements. OMB also requires 23 components of these agencies to prepare audited financial statements.
The Government Management Reform Act of 1994 also required that beginning with FY 1997 Treasury prepare consolidated financial statements (CFS) for the executive branch and GAO audit them. GAO issued a disclaimer of opinion on the 1997 CFS, saying they were unable to determine the reliability of significant portions of the statements because of financial systems weaknesses, problems with fundamental recordkeeping, incomplete documentation, and weak internal controls. For example, the Government could not properly account for hundreds of billions of dollars of property, equipment, materials, and supplies. The President has committed to an unqualified audit opinion on the FY 1999 CFS.
All of the above are public documents. An increasing number are available on the Web, and OMB's goal is for all to be available.
Better financial information is extremely important to meet the Commission's goal of better planning. In particular, information on property, plant, and equipment is necessary as a starting point in analyzing the need to acquire or dispose of capital assets; and information on program costs needs to be matched against program outputs and outcomes in order to evaluate program operations under GPRA. We have come a long ways but need to go a lot further.
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