One-On-One with David Walker

David Walker, the former United States Comptroller General and head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) from 1998-2008, is slated to be the keynote speaker at RISCPA’s annual meeting next month.

Walker is the founder and CEO of the non-partisan Comeback America Initiative (CAI), which promotes fiscal responsibility and sustainability to help solve America’s federal, state, and local fiscal imbalances.

Former AICPA Chairman, RISCPA Past President and current Board member of CAI, Ernie Almonte, will do the honors of introducing Walker at the event, scheduled for Tuesday evening, April 26, at the Providence Marriott.

In advance of his keynote address, What Counts visited with Walker, discussing what led to his creation of CAI, his ideas for improving the American economy, and his impressions of the Rhode Island economy.          

WHAT COUNTS: Tell us a bit about the Comeback America Initiative (CAI). When did you create it and what fueled you to do so?

David Walker: The Comeback America Initiative (CAI) was created in late 2010 and is committed to restoring fiscal responsibility and sustainability in order to keep America great and the American Dream alive for future generations. I decided to form CAI in order to pursue a broader range of federal, state and local fiscal issues, to be even more aggressive in proposing sensible solutions, and to engage in additional grassroots activities. It's also nice that CAI's offices are only five minutes from my home when I'm not on the road.

WC: CAI’s charge is to “help achieve solutions to America’s federal, state, and local fiscal imbalances.” What are some examples of those fiscal imbalances?

DW: The federal government and most state and local governments face large and growing structural deficits in the future. At the federal level, these deficits are driven largely by known demographic trends, rising health care costs, additional interest expense, and a growing gap between projected revenues and expenses.

WC: You spent a decade (1998-2008) as head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office. What did you learn from that experience?  

DW: I learned that even though the federal government has existed as a republic since 1789, it has never had a strategic plan that is future focused and results oriented. In addition, the federal government's organizational structure, operational practices, tax policies, spending programs and regulatory approaches are largely based on conditions that existed in the United States and the world in the 1950s. It's time to bring the federal government into the 21st century.

During my tenure as Comptroller General of the United States and CEO of the GAO, we demonstrated that it is possible to transform a government agency to make it both smaller and more effective. What we did at GAO is both scaleable and transferable to other parts of government.

WC: How critical is it that policymakers – and the public at large – remove partisanship from the equation when attempting to resolve fiscal problems?

DW: The only way to successfully address our fiscal challenges in a sustainable fashion is to pursue nonpartisan solutions that can achieve bipartisan support. In addition, everyone needs to be at the table and everything needs to be on the table in order to put our nation on a more prudent and sustainable path.

WC: Rhode Island has long been criticized for having a poor business climate. What are important first steps for our General Assembly to take to counter that perception?

DW: Businesses do not have duties of loyalty to countries or states. They have duties of loyalty to their shareholders. As a result, countries and states need to design their tax, regulatory and other policies to attract and retain businesses. Government also needs to have a constructive relationship with business and provide a reasonable degree of predictability in its policies to enable businesses to plan and invest for the future.

WC: We have a convenient and accessible airport, renowned colleges and universities, highly regarded hospitals, shipping ports… and so much more. How do we capitalize on these attributes? Why aren’t they driving our economy in a better direction?  

DW: I don’t profess to be an expert on Rhode Island. It is, however, my understanding that Rhode Island’s taxes are well above average and that the state’s regulatory burdens and labor costs are greater than most states. These represent obvious challenges to the state’s competitive posture that need to be addressed.   

WC: What do you say to small business owners – maybe a mom and pop shop – about coping, or making it work in a distressed economy?

DW: Making extra efforts to minimize costs, including labor costs, and enhance customer service are two strategies that can help small businesses cope during challenging economic times. Pursuing strategic alliances and partnering opportunities can also pay dividends.  

WC: On a personal level, what do you find most rewarding about what you do?

DW: I have always been a person who focuses more on making a difference rather than maximizing my income and wealth. My current and prior public service and non-profit positions have enabled me to do so. I have been referred to by Paul Volcker and others as the "Paul Revere of fiscal Responsibility". That is a real compliment for which I am appreciative; however, I really want to see elected officials start to make the tough choices needed to put our nation's finances in order. That would make me feel much better.  

WC: How do you see people in the accounting profession helping to restart the American economy?  

DW: CPA’s can help their clients understand what is driving their costs and which lines of business are the most profitable. They can help provide valuable advice to help improve efficiency and effectiveness while ensuring appropriate transparency and accountability.