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ASMC visits ... The Government Accountability Office home of the Red Book.

The Red Book Reigns

The Government Accountability office (GAO) Red Book, Principles of Federal Appropriations Law, may be the most important reference any federal financial manager has. The Red Book guides one through the complexities of the laws surrounding the use of appropriated funds; and, yes, there are criminal sanctions in place for those who violate the Antideficiency Act. The surest route to administrative penalties, great unhappiness, and a quick end to a federal career is to ignore lessons readily available in the Red Book.

Many years ago, when I was just starting my career in government financial management, I was privileged to attend an excellent three-day training course in federal appropriations law taught by Meg Archibald, a superbly capable attorney. The course centered on the then newly issued first edition of the GAO Red Book. It was in that course that I first heard the appropriations law mantra--purpose, amount, and time--and began to develop an understanding of the complexities of case law that surrounded this kind of funding and the attendant miseries falling to those who violated those laws. I also learned of something called antideficiency violation and the hundreds of novel but inadvertent ways one could commit such acts and of their career-ending potential.

The first Red Book (so named because of its bright red cover) was primarily the work of Bob Centola, whose writing and choice of case examples set the tone for the work. It was about the size of a large city telephone book and was quite intimidating to me.

Today's Red Book is designed in a four-volume format. Released in 2004, Volume I is available on the Internet (www. under the heading Legal Products. It contains three general law chapters and a detailed discussion of availability of appropriations as to time and amount. Volume ii, Third Edition, is due out soon in 2005, and volumes III and IV will be available, respectively, in 2006 and 200Z Along with the complete issuance of the third edition of the Red Book will be an annual update of new case law for everything that is already in print. With this growing level of effort every year, the result is a superb and contemporary resource.

Meet the "Players"

Publication of the Red Book volumes, as well as planned annual updates, falls under the purview of Assistant General Counsel Thomas Armstrong, who specializes in appropriations law. I met him at an American Association of Budget and Program Analysis conference, where he graciously agreed to an interview for Armed Forces Comptroller. Armstrong began his career with GAO in 1977, along with Archibald, and has worked in the field of appropriations law since.

I met Armstrong and his boss, Associate General Counsel Susan A. Poling (recent winner of the Comptroller General's Integrity Award), at the GAO headquarters on 411 G Street, Washington, D.C. Armstrong, trim, youthful, energetic, and well-dressed, is one of the senior attorneys at GAO.

"Work is pretty much what I do, and I love it!" he said in response to my question as to what he did for fun. "Some people read P.D. James; I read drafts of appropriations law decisions. I really like the intellectual nature of the work we do. We dig into new and complex legal issues every day, applying those core legal skills of research, analysis, and writing, and have to figure out where they fit in our long history of case law."

He is a valued mentor for the younger professionals entering the field. One has the impression, too, that the climate at GAO and in his work unit is very positive and forward-looking, reflecting the tone set by Comptroller General David Walker. All members whom I met from Armstrong's staff seemed delighted to be where they were and doing what they do.

Asking about the level of human resources required to maintain the Red Book, I learned that two staff attorneys who work for Armstrong have primary coordination and editing responsibility--Sheila Rutzenberger and Kord Basnight. But during the review and updating process, as many as 26 attorneys devote varying amounts of time to writing and updating the volumes, many donating their own time and working at home to meet production deadlines.

GAO Course Instruction and Consultation

In addition to publishing the Red Book, Armstrong and his staff offer instruction and consultation to help financial managers in the various government agencies. First, there is a 2 1/2-day GAO course on orientation to federal fiscal law course entitled Principles of Appropriations Law, presented a number of times a year. (It was presented 18 times in 2004.) The course targets government personnel with finance, accounting, contracting budgeting, property management, auditing, and legal responsibilities.

It provides participants an analytical framework useful in identifying and resolving appropriations law issues occurring in their own work. It focuses on the availability of appropriations as to purpose, amount, and time and also explains the basic constitutional and legislative controls and processes regarding federal funds, fiscal law terminology, fundamental rules of statutory construction, the concept of obligations in appropriations law, and the application of appropriations law in interagency transactions. A blend of lecture, case studies, and student participation, the course challenges participants while ensuring that maximum learning occurs.

Given at GAO in Washington, D.C., twice a year, the course costs $350 per participant. Courses are also given at agency locations on request; each presentation costs $3,000, plus faculty travel and per diem expenses for the instructors. The classes can accommodate tip to 30 students. Considering the background and expertise of the teaching staff, this is the training bargain of the millennium. Point of contact is Joyce Harper at (202) 512-5644 or

A second service that Armstrong's office provides is informal consultation for persons from federal agencies who feel they need a bit of extra expert help. Answers are given on an informal basis only and are never given in writing but rather orally over the phone. What one must do is send GAO an email stating the question and the key facts surrounding each issue. To reach the proper part of the Web site, go to Click on Legal Products and on the Red Book Queries box. Be sure to include your phone number. Armstrong or one of his staff will try to contact you within about 10 working days.

The core work of Armstrong's office, however, is those appropriations law decisions and opinions that form the body of case law discussed in the Red Book and in GAO's appropriations law course. Certain agency officials are entitled by law to decisions from GAO on appropriations law. GAO also issues opinions to committees and members of Congress. These decisions and opinions are conclusive on the federal government--which is why the Red Book is treated with reverence in agencies' financial and legal offices. You'll find a discussion of GAO's role in the federal appropriations process, including a discussion of GAO's decision function, in the third edition of Volume I.

Take Advantage of a Good Thing

The Red Book is an essential tool for every federal financial manager at all levels from agency headquarters to the field operating level. Armstrong and his staff are doing a yeoman's job in getting the information out where it is needed and going the extra mile to helping people if they have questions.

Get the training if you haven't had it, and make sure all your staff members are trained as well. The price of an anti-deficiency violation is too high to pay.
COPYRIGHT 2005 American Society of Military Comptrollers
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Title Annotation:American Society of Military Comptrollers
Author:Raines, John T.
Publication:Armed Forces Comptroller
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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