Payment of Fees for Actuarial Accreditation Examination Review, B-286026

Decision Date12 June 2001
Docket NumberB-286026
PartiesPayment of Fees for Actuarial Accreditation Examination Review,
CourtComptroller General of the United States

By letter dated August 2, 2000, the General Counsel of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) asked whether PBGC may use appropriated funds to pay, as training costs fees for actuary accreditation examination review courses on-the-job study time, and examination fees. As explained below, PBGC has authority, under 5 U.S.C. Sec. 4109(a), to use appropriated funds for review courses and on-the-job study time, but not for examination fees.


PBGC is a wholly-owned government corporation, 5 U.S.C. Sec. 105 that administers the defined-benefit termination insurance program under Title IV of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, 29 U.S.C. Secs. 1301 - 1368. When a covered pension plan terminates with unfunded benefit liabilities, PBGC takes over the plan and pays the unfunded portion of the basic benefits with its insurance funds. 29 U.S.C. Sec. 1322. PBGC employs a number of actuaries to calculate pension benefits. To obtain employment as an actuary at PBGC, a person must have an undergraduate degree or a combination of relevant education and experience; an actuary need not have a professional license or credential for employment. Letter from PBGC General Counsel, August 2 2000.

Two organizations, the Joint Board for the Enrollment of Actuaries and the Society of Actuaries, offer examinations to accredit actuaries. In the course of negotiating a collective bargaining agreement with its actuaries, PBGC proposes to use its training funds to pay to send actuaries to examination review courses, provide actuaries with on-the-job study time to review the course materials, and pay for the accreditation examinations. PBGC explained that because pension plan participants and sponsors often challenge PBGC's benefit-calculation decisions (sometimes in litigation), the review courses, even though designed to prepare examinants for the exams, would enhance the ability of PBGC actuaries to carry out their assignments. These courses, PBGC has determined, "focus on a number of realistic actuarial problems that mirror the problems that PBGC's actuaries will face as they advance in their careers." PBGC Letter, August 2, 2000.

PBGC expects, further, that having actuaries who sit for the exam and obtain actuary credentials will enhance PBGC's credibility when dealing with actuaries hired by participants and sponsors who challenge PBGC's decisions. PBGC also has determined that offering actuarial training and examinations at government expense will assist in recruiting and retaining actuaries. Recruitment and retention problems have been exacerbated in recent times by the high salaries that actuaries command in the private sector.


At issue here is whether the cost of the examination review courses, on-the-job study time, and accreditation exams are properly viewed as personal qualification expenses or as training expenses. As early as 1890, the Supreme Court held that expenses necessary to qualify a government employee to do his or her job are personal expenses, and as such, are not chargeable to appropriated funds. "[I]t is the duty of persons receiving appointments from the government... to qualify themselves for the office." United States v Duzee, 140 U.S. 169, 171 (1890). The accounting officers of the government have adhered to this rule.[1] As stated in an 1895 Comptroller of the Treasury decision, "That which is required of a person to become invested with an office must be done at his own expense unless specific provision is made by law for payment by the Government." 2 Comp. Dec. 262, 263 (1895). Our decisions have applied this rule on numerous occasions. In 61 Comp. Gen. 357 (1982), for example, we held that an agency could not pay the costs of bar review courses or bar membership fees for its employee attorneys. We viewed these expenses as personal expenses related to qualifying for office. See also 46 Comp. Gen. 695 (1976) (medical licensing fees for Public Health Service physicians); 22 Comp. Gen. 460 (1942) (expenses for Federal Trade Commission attorney's admittance to bar of a United States Circuit Court of Appeals); B-260771, October 11, 1995 (cost of obtaining Certified Government Manager designation).

In at least two instances, however, we either expressly or tacitly viewed accreditation review courses as training costs, rather than as personal qualification expenses, authorized by the Government Employees' Training Act (Act). 5 U.S.C. Secs. 4101-4118. In B-187525, October 15, 1976, we held that the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) could pay, as training costs, the costs of a California bar review course for a staff attorney already admitted to the bar of another state. The ICC had assigned the staff attorney to work in California. The rules of the United States District Court in California required that an attorney, although already admitted to the bar of another state, obtain admission to the California bar. ICC had agreed to pay for its attorney to take a California bar review course, determining that the review course, by preparing the attorney for the California bar exam, would enable the agency to perform its duties in California. We concluded that the bar review course constituted training, not a qualification expense for the ICC attorney, on the grounds that the ICC found it necessary to the agency's objectives to assign this attorney to California, and the attorney had, in fact, already qualified himself for employment when he gained admission to his first bar. Accordingly, we did not view the expense of the California bar review course as a personal qualification expense, but rather as an authorized training expense under the Act.

In another decision, 55 Comp. Gen. 759 (1976), the Department of Interior's Bureau of Reclamation had asked whether it could pay the examination fee and travel costs of an employee taking an examination to qualify as an accredited rural appraiser.[2] The facts of the decision indicate that the Bureau had paid the employee's tuition for a review course to prepare for the accreditation exam. Although the Bureau had not raised the use of appropriated funds for the review course as an issue, we noted, without objection, the Bureau's determination that the course was payable as training under the Act.

These two 1976 decisions share one thing in common -- the explicit or tacit acceptance of accreditation review courses as authorized training. As the Comptroller of the Treasury recognized, appropriated funds are available to pay for what might otherwise constitute a personal expense of qualifying for a federal position to the extent Congress has authorized the use of appropriated funds for such purpose.[3] 2 Comp. Dec. at 263. By focusing solely on the benefit of the review courses to the person seeking to qualify for a position or to earn an accreditation, our decisions have not consistently given due regard to agencies' authority to cover such costs in appropriate circumstances as training expenses. See, e.g., 61 Comp. Gen. at 360.

In 1958 Congress enacted the Government Employees' Training Act to authorize federal agencies, including government corporations such as PBGC, to use appropriated funds to train government employees. 5 U.S.C. Sec. 4101(1)(C). The Act authorizes the head of each agency to establish training programs, consistent with OPM's implementing guidance. The purpose of each agency's training program is to assist an agency's mission and performance goals by improving employee performance. 5 U.S.C. Sec. 4103. Section 4101(4) defines training to include "placing or enrolling the employee in, a planned, prepared, and coordinated program, [or] course... in scientific, professional, technical... or other fields which will improve individual and organizational performance and assist in achieving the agency's mission and performance goals."[4]

Our decisions have interpreted this Act to be "sufficiently broad and flexible to enable an agency to provide whatever training is necessary to develop the skills, knowledge, and abilities that will best qualify employees for the performance of official duties." B-182398, October 24, 1974. See also B-258442, B-258443, April 19, 1995. While the Act and regulations grant a considerable degree of discretion to agency heads to determine the types of training to provide, the head of an agency "is not authorized to expand the statutory definition or pay for items not contemplated by the definition." B-187525, October 15, 1974.[5] Section 4101 requires that a program, to constitute training, be designed to increase the knowledge and proficiency of the persons attending them. B-182398, October 24, 1974. In this regard, OPM has issued the following guidance:

"An agency may pay for a refresher course, such as refresher training in professional engineering for an engineer or in law for an attorney. Although the training may prepare the employee for a professional examination, the training itself is justified because it will improve the employee's performance of his or her official duties."

OPM Human Resources Flexibilities,

Given OPM's role under the Act, we believe its guidance merits deference if otherwise reasonable. Chevron USA, Inc. v NRDC, 467 U.S. 837, 844 (1984). Here, in fact, we agree with OPM's guidance. The Government Employees' Training Act provides an agency head with the discretionary authority to pay the costs of a review course so long as the agency head determines that the review course will enhance knowledge, skills, and abilities that the agency deems important to an employee's performance of...

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