Legislative Branch

Guide to House Records: Chapter 11

Chapter 11. Records of the Government Operations Committee and Its Predecessors

Table of Contents

Records of the Government Operations Committee and Its Predecessors, 1814-1988 from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States

Committees discussed in this chapter:

11.1 Article I, section 9 of the Constitution provides that "No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time." From the founding of our Government it has been the right of Congress, the legislative branch, to appropriate funds for the executive branch and to specify, except in extreme cases, where the funds should be spent. This chapter includes descriptions of the records of the Committee on Government Operations and numerous other standing committees, subcommittees, and special subcommittees of the House that have been created specifically to oversee the expenditure of funds by the executive agencies of the Government.

History and Jurisdiction

11.2 Initially, the House appointed special committees to monitor the use of public moneys. In 1802, the Committee of Ways and Means was empowered to review expenditures and to report such provisions and arrangements "as may be necessary to add to the economy of the departments, and the accountability of their officers."1 On February 26, 1814, Congress divided the duties of the Committee of Ways and Means and transferred that part relating to the examination of past expenditures to a standing Committee on Public Expenditures.2

11.3 The Committee on Public Expenditures was to "examine into the state of the several public departments, and particularly into the laws making appropriations of moneys and to report whether the moneys had been disbursed conformably with such laws." It was also to report measures to increase the economy of the Departments and the accountability of officers.3

11.4 In 1816 the House initiated an organizational change that provided a means of continuously and consistently following the operations of the various Departments and scrutinizing their expenditures. Henry St. George Tucker of Virginia proposed the appointment of six standing committees to examine the accounts and expenditures of the State, Treasury, War, Navy, and Post Office Departments, and those related to the construction and maintenance of public buildings.

11.5 The committees were created on March 30, 1816,4 and committees for the Departments of Interior, Justice, Agriculture, Commerce and Labor (later split into two committees), were established between 1860 and 1913. The jurisdiction of these new committees included the following subjects:

    The examination of the accounts and expenditures of the several Departments of the Government and the manner of keeping the same; the economy, justness, and correctness of such expenditures; their conformity with appropriation laws; the proper application of public moneys; the security of the Government against unjust and extravagant demands; retrenchment; the enforcement of the payment of moneys due to the United States; the economy and accountability of public officers; the abolishment of useless offices; [and] the reduction or increase of the pay of officers.5

11.6 Until January 28, 1878, each committee generally consisted of three to five members. After that date, the number was fixed at seven. Frequently, first-term members of Congress were assigned to these committees. Abraham Lincoln, for example, served as a member of the Committee on Expenditures in the War Department during the 30th Congress, his only term in Congress.

11.7 From 1816 to 1927 the committees on expenditures reviewed the financial accountability of the Departments and infrequently followed the reviews with investigations. Although they usually had relatively little to do, at times the committees attained considerable importance and prominence. Faced with a substantative war debt during their first decade, most of the committees actively monitored their respective Departments and recommended ways to effect economies in departmental operations. The committees usually were busy and effective during periods of financial crisis, but their activities generally were curtailed when the United States was at war.

11.8 The committees could conduct investigations with or without specific direction from the House. Authority for compelling testimony, however, had to be obtained from the House, except during the 44th and 45th Congresses. Because of this limitation, investigations made under authority of the rules were merely inquiries undertaken with the cooperation or acquiescence of the officers of the Departments involved. Investigations were also made at the request of Congress, but many investigations that the committees could have handled were conducted by special committees created specifically for the purpose.

11.9 By 1879 the usefulness of the Committee on Public Expenditures was being questioned by the Committee on Rules which argued that the mission of the Committee on Public Expenditures essentially duplicated on a broad scale the work of the committees on expenditures of the individual Departments. The Committee on Rules maintained that one committee could not examine the financial management of the several Departments as thoroughly as committees whose sole purpose was to examine the accounts and expenditures of a single Department. Effective March 8, 1880, the Committee on Public Expenditures ceased to exist although Congress had stipulated that no standing committee should be abolished before March 3, 1881, the end of the 46th Congress. The Committee on Public Expenditures was revived as a select committee during the 47th Congress.

11.10 The fate of the House committees on departmental expenditures was directly influenced by organizational changes in the Treasury Department. From 1817 to 1921 the Treasury Department employed six accounting officers called Auditors who examined accounts involving the collection or disbursement of public funds and decided which accounts were to be admitted or rejected. The seventh "Auditor" was the Comptroller of the Treasury whose principal duty was to construe the laws governing the disbursement and application of public moneys but who also occasionally reviewed accounts previously examined by the Auditors. The work of the Auditors was not performed for Congress, and the audited accounts were not submitted to Congress.

11.11 By the end of World War I Congress realized the limitations of its control over expenditures and its inability to monitor effectively the use of funds by the executive departments. In practice the executive branch audited its own accounts through the Treasury Department with relatively little congressional supervision. Consequently, as a measure designed to increase congressional control over expenditures as well as over matters of economy and efficiency in governmental operations, Congress passed the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921.

11.12 The Budget and Accounting Act of 1921 (Public Law 67-13) combined the six auditing offices of the Treasury Department with the Office of the Comptroller of the Treasury to form the General Accounting Office (GAO). The GAO was separated from the Treasury Department and established as an independent office responsible to Congress. The Act also created the Office of the Comptroller General and ordered that official to investigate "all matters relating to the receipt, disbursement, and applications of public funds" and to make reports to Congress on his work and recommendations and to "make such investigations and reports as shall be ordered by either House . . . or by any committee . . . having jurisdiction over revenue appropriations, or expenditures."

11.13 When Alvan T. Fuller of Massachusetts resigned from the Committee on Expenditures in the Interior Department in 1918, he said that the committee was "wasting the taxpayers' money" and was "the most inefficient and expensive barnacle that ever attached itself to a ship of state."6 Following World War I most of the committees on expenditures continued to be relatively inactive, a situation that was aggravated after the General Account Office was created in 1921 because many committee members believed that the GAO was looking out for the interests of Congress. Because the committees were accomplishing so little, Congress, on the first day of the 70th Congress, December 5, 1927, abolished the 11 committees on expenditures and replaced them with a single committee, the Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Departments.7

11.14 The Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Departments consisted of 21 members. Initially its jurisdiction was the same as that of the departmental committees. In 1928 its jurisdiction was expanded to cover independent establishments and commissions. In time the committee acquired jurisdiction over a wide variety of activities. For example, it came to be responsible for facilitating the conservation of public lands and other natural resources by coordinating the conservation functions of executive agencies. It also became involved with recordkeeping requirements for various governmental agencies.

11.15 During its early years the committee addressed a few select issues, such as the public works function in Government, the consolidation of veterans' affairs, and a retirement system for Federal employees. However, the Great Depression made monitoring economy and efficiency in the Government an urgent issue, and the committee's activities greatly increased under John J. Cochran of Missouri who chaired the committee from 1932 to 1940. America's entry into World War II, and the subsequent slowing down of New Deal activities led to a relatively inactive period for the committee.

11.16 With the end of the war and passage of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 (Public Law 79-601), the committee once again became active. This act charged the committee with receiving and examining the reports of the Comptroller General and of reporting on them to the House; studying the operation of government activities at all levels to determine their economy and efficiency; evaluating the effects of laws enacted to reorganize the legislative and executive branches of the government; and studying intergovernmental relationships.

11.17 Much of the post-war committee work had to do with government reorganizations. In 1939 Congress authorized the President to formulate plans for abolishing, consolidating, or regrouping agencies of the executive department in the interest of efficiency and economy and to transmit the plans to Congress where they were reviewed by the Committee. If the plans were not disapproved by the Committee and Congress did not reject them within 60 days they would automatically take effect. Beginning in 1949, the Committee also reviewed the recommendations of the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government (the Hoover Commission) and the reorganization plans subsequently submitted under the general Reorganization Act of 1949. This Act ratified the Hoover Commission's recommendations in principle and authorized the President to draw up specific reorganization plans. However, the legislators reserved to themselves the right to veto any plan by adverse vote of either House within 60 days of its submission. Subsequent legislation made similiar provisions about reorganization plans. Between 1949 and 1973, 19 of the 93 reorganization plans submitted by the President were rejected.

11.18 Much of the work of the committee and its successor, the Committee on Government Operations, related to the work of the General Accounting Office. In 1946 the committee was charged in the Legislative Reorganization Act with responsibility for reviewing the audit reports of the General Accounting Office. These reports grew in number and scope after 1945 when Public Law 79-248 authorized the GAO to conduct audits of Government-owned agencies and again after 1949, when GAO began "comprehensive audits" of all Departments and agencies.

11.19 On July 3, 1952, the Committee was renamed the Committee on Government Operations.8 The jurisdiction of the Committee on Government Operations pursuant to the rules of the 90th Congress included:

    A. Budget and accounting measures, other than appropriations; B. Reorganizations in the executive branch of the Government; C.(1). receiving and examining reports of the Comptroller General of the United States and of submitting such recommendations to the House as it deems necessary or desirable in connection with the subject matter of such reports; (2). studying the operation of Government activities at all levels with a view to determining its economy and efficiency; (3). evaluating the effects of laws enacted to reorganize the legislative and executive branches of the Government; (4). studying intergovernmental relationships between the United States and States and municipalities, and between the United States and international organizations of which the United States is a member.9

11.20 For the purpose of performing its duties, the committee, or any of its subcommittees when authorized by the committee, was authorized to hold hearings and act at any time and place within the United States. It was also authorized to require by subpoena or otherwise the attendance of witnesses and the production of papers, documents, and books, and to take such testimony as it deemed necessary.

11.21 The Committee's jurisdiction with respect to oversight responsibilities overlapped with that of most other standing committees. Such overlapping jurisdiction necessarily arose from the broad oversight functions assigned to the committee by the House rules.

11.22 The work of the committee has increased with almost every Congress during the past four decades. The same has been true of the oversight activities of the other House committees, as a result, in part, to the directive in Section 136 of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 that "each standing committee . . . shall exercise continuous watchfulness of the execution . . . of any laws" by the administrative agencies within their jurisdiction, and by the requirement of the Reorganization Act of 1970, that the committees report annually on their oversight activities.

11.23 Two series of records that document the administrative operation of the committees are common to most of the committees on expenditures for the period 1814-1927. Minute books contain information about committee membership and attendance at meetings, the appointment of clerks, topics discussed during the meetings, and lists of witnesses who appeared before the committees. The docket books contain information about the status of bills, correspondence, and actions of committee interest. Because the contents of the minute and docket books are basically the same for each committee, only those volumes that contain unusual information are mentioned specifically in the discussion of the records of each committee.

11.24 Two other series that are found for most of the committees are petitions and memorials and committee papers. Relatively few petitions and memorials were referred to the committees and for most committees the footage for this series is negligible. Committee papers form the bulk of the records for most of the committees. These papers generally consist of financial statements and other fiscal records providing information about specific and contingent expenditures. Often detailed information is given about the expenses, salaries, and promotions of individual employees of the Government. Many of the records concern studies on the adjustment of pay and allowances for governmental workers. The volume of committee papers increases significantly with the 80th Congress (1947-49).

11.25 The bill files, are found in great volume after the 80th Congress. They are arranged by Congress and thereunder by bill type: House bills, House resolutions, House joint resolutions, House concurrent resolutions, Senate bills, Senate joint resolutions, and Senate concurrent resolutions, and thereunder by bill or resolution number.

Table of Contents


1. Annals of the Congress of the United States, 7th Cong., 1st sess., Jan. 7, 1802, p. 412. [Back to text]

2. Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, 13th Cong., 2nd sess., Feb. 26, 1814, pp. 311, 314. [Back to text]

3. Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, 13th Cong., 2nd sess., Feb. 26, 1814, pp. 311, 314. [Back to text]

4. Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, 14th Cong., 1st sess., Mar. 30, 1816, p. 550. [Back to text]

5. Asher C. Hinds, Hinds' Precedents of the House of Representatives of the United States (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1907) vol. 4, p. 830, para. 4315.[Back to text]

6. George B. Galloway, Congress at the Crossroads (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1946), p. 263, n. 46. [Back to text]

7. Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, 70th Cong., 1st sess., Dec. 5, 1927, p. 8. [Back to text]

8. Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, 82nd Cong., 2nd sess., July 3, 1952, pp. 720-721. [Back to text]

9. Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States, 90th Cong., 2nd sess., Rule XI, "Powers and Duties of Committees," p. 1315. [Back to text]

Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States House of Representatives at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-245). By Charles E. Schamel, Mary Rephlo, Rodney Ross, David Kepley, Robert W. Coren, and James Gregory Bradsher. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.