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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Federal Financial Reporting: An Overview

Garrett Hatch
Coordinator Specialist in American National Government

Federal financial reporting—defined here as the process of recording retrospective executive department-level financial and performance information—can provide both a snapshot of the government’s financial health at a given moment in time, as well as an accounting of its financial performance over a particular time frame. Federal financial reports may help the federal government demonstrate accountability, provide information for policy formulation and planning, and be used to evaluate governmental performance. Multiple reports are required by law, and all are intended to permit users—Congress, the President, agency heads, program managers, and citizens—to see how the government raises, handles, and expends public money. Congress, in particular, may find the information in federal financial reports useful for oversight.

The Budget and Accounting Procedures Act of 1950 was the first statute to require executive agencies to provide reports and information on their financial condition to the Secretary of the Treasury. The Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990 (CFO Act) mandates the preparation of audited annual financial statements for certain funds and accounts from a number of executive branch agencies, with 10 agencies selected to provide audited annual financial statements for all agency accounts. The latter provision was expanded to every agency covered under the CFO Act (commonly referred to as CFO agencies) in the Government Management Reform Act of 1994 (GMRA) and to every executive agency in the Accountability of Tax Dollars Act of 2002 (ATDA). In addition, the CFO Act requires the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to furnish an annual financial management status report and a government-wide five-year financial management plan, and GMRA requires the Secretary of the Treasury to provide government-wide annual consolidated financial statements to be audited by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

GAO has documented improvements to federal financial reporting since the enactment of the CFO Act. Demonstrable progress has been in evidence across numerous financial management indicators, including timeliness, consistency, and auditability. In FY2012, 21 of 24 CFO agencies received unqualified (clean) audit opinions on their annual financial statements, which means that their statements were free of material misstatements and accord with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). Challenges have persisted, though, both within agencies and government-wide.

Unqualified overall audit opinions can obscure material weaknesses that underlie systematic financial management issues. In addition, two agencies—the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Defense (DOD)—have never received unqualified audit opinions, which signifies the persistence of financial problems at these agencies. Government-wide, the U.S. consolidated financial statements have received a disclaimer of opinion every year since they were first required under GMRA. GAO was unable to express an opinion on the FY2012 U.S. consolidated financial statements due to material weaknesses in internal control over financial reporting and other limitations on the scope of its work. Finally, federal financial statements may not provide readily understandable information to their multiple stakeholders.

Congress has recently considered legislation relating to audits of federal financial statements. In the 113
th Congress, Representative Lee has introduced legislation (H.R. 559) that would require a 5% reduction in a federal agency’s discretionary budgetary authority for failure to produce an annual financial statement or failure to receive either an unqualified or qualified audit opinion on its annual financial statement. H.R. 559 was referred to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and the Committee on Armed Services. The 112th Congress considered similar legislation, as well as legislation on audited annual financial statements at DOD and DHS, specifically.

In the 112
th Congress, Senator Coburn introduced the Audit the Pentagon Act, which would have mandated auditable financial statements by DOD for its FY2017 statements. The legislation also would have required DOD to provide a complete and validated statement of budgetary resources by FY2014. Congress also considered legislation to address problems at the Department of Homeland Security in the 112th Congress. The DHS Audit Requirement Target Act of 2012 (DART, 126 Stat. 1591) was signed into law on December 20, 2012. The DART Act directs DHS to obtain an unqualified audit opinion beginning with its FY2013 annual financial statements.

Date of Report: October 22, 2013
Number of Pages: 27
Order Number: R42975
Price: $29.95

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