On June 27, 1921, President Warren Harding nominated John Raymond McCarl to direct the newly created federal General Accounting Office (GAO). According to statute, McCarl’s responsibility as our nation’s first comptroller general was to keep "tight control on disbursement and meticulous record-keeping." His unofficial job--he saw it as his duty--was to protect the American taxpayer’s money. So he built his agency into what has become known as the "watchdog on the Potomac."
Born in Iowa in 1879 and educated in law at the University of Nebraska, McCarl held one of Washington’s most powerful positions from 1921 to 1936. He nevertheless shunned the dance-and-dinner social circuit of the Washington elite in favor of his preferred pastime: work. He often stayed late at his office working two jobs, as comptroller general and as the building’s night watchman, a position he considered too extravagant to pay for. When not working, McCarl could be found alone at one of Washington’s inexpensive public golf courses.
McCarl was disdained less for his work habits than for his prickly obstinacy, especially toward four different presidents. During his 15-year tenure, McCarl rejected the Navy’s requests to use federal funds for wreaths honoring deceased officers, banned seafaring State Department officials from tipping steamer stewards more than $5, and once criticized a member of the cabinet for spending too much on a business lunch on the other side of the Potomac. "Nowhere in Virginia can you get a lunch worth $1.50," he said. When President Calvin Coolidge organized a special committee to tour the national parks, McCarl rejected their $3,000 expense account, claiming there was no legal justification for the charges.
Then there was the Army officer whose horse was killed by a wayward bullet during target practice. When the officer claimed expenses for a new horse, McCarl said, "Persuasive--but not compelling." He notified the officer that "other unwanted horses might stray in the way of bullets if this claim were allowed." If only all public servants were as mindful of the law of unintended consequences.
In March 1933, he encountered his greatest nemeses: Franklin Roosevelt and his New Dealers. Unfailingly polite and deeply respectful of democracy’s forms and formalities, McCarl withheld his harshest public words until after leaving the GAO in 1936. Only then did he criticize FDR’s "program of Government expansion, ‘Government-run-everything,’ regardless of costs." "Of course," he continued, "it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but they had the ‘cures’ for our ills, and then, too, it would be a thrilling experience ‘running everything.’"
While in office, McCarl thwarted several of FDR’s pet projects. When the White House ordered the erection of a factory in Reedsville, West Virginia (Eleanor Roosevelt’s hometown), with the blessing of Congress, McCarl blocked its construction because lawmakers had never appropriated the necessary funds. When Congress set aside $500 million for drought relief, he ruled against the use of $15 million to finance a massive drought-prevention project in the Great Plains. He was also a staunch critic of the Tennessee Valley Authority. "This ‘penny-pinching,’ ‘tin-pot’ tyrant," wrote columnist Drew Pearson, "personally has saved the United States Treasury no less than half a billion dollars."
McCarl left his country with a strong and independent GAO that continues to scrutinize wasteful government spending. (President Clinton’s year-long refusal to nominate a new comptroller general to a 15-year term, however, reminds us that its autonomy is never assured.) McCarl’s legacy nevertheless includes something far more profound than spirited bean-counting: A principled argument for checking the expansion of government.
Fiscal responsibility, while important, is rarely the only--or even the most compelling--argument for limiting the federal government. An ever-expanding state not only throws accounting records out of balance, it also undermines American character. Three months after leaving the GAO, McCarl said of the New Deal: "But waste of money . . . was not all that was involved in this plan. The substitution of Federal for local management meant, too, waste of good citizenship. Such a plan breaks down local leadership, destroys local responsibility, turns all eyes on Washington and kills initiative--self-help initiative. . . . The breaking down and wanton waste of the self-respect and self-reliance of a substantial portion of our citizenship, the enforced injecting of parasitism into the body politic, is a damage we can never measure but will require years to repair."
Many conservative heirs to this tradition of limited government have lost their way. Witness the deficit hawks in Congress today who celebrate a "balanced-budget" deal that preserves the perpetual growth of government spending. McCarl must surely have winced when he heard FDR declare in his First Inaugural address: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." For McCarl knew that Americans should fear lots of things, including high promises from high places.