The History of GAO - The Early Years

Responding to the needs of Congress and the nation, GAO has evolved over the years in how it does its work. Until the end of World War II, GAO primarily checked the legality and adequacy of government expenditures. The agency issued decisions on payment questions and helped process financial claims for and against the government. GAO's employees reviewed individual financial transactions by checking expenditure vouchers. They also audited and reconciled disbursing officers' accounts. The work was done centrally, which meant that government agencies had to send their fiscal records to GAO. Legions of audit clerks worked in the great hall of the Pension Building--GAO's home from 1926 to 1951--reviewing stacks of paperwork documenting government expenditures.

During President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s, federal money poured into recovery and relief efforts to fight the Great Depression. More government programs meant more paperwork for GAO to examine. GAO, which started out in 1921 with about 1,700 employees, soon found itself short handed. By 1940, GAO's workforce had risen to 5,000. With the U.S. entry into World War II, military spending triggered a paperwork explosion that overwhelmed GAO's ability to keep up with central voucher auditing. Even with a staff that had grown to more than 14,000 by 1945, the agency still faced a backlog of 35 million unaudited vouchers.