It’s Déjà Vu All Over Again: GAO Exposes Government Waste and Duplication at its Worst

WasteWatcher, March 2012

By Erica Gordon

On March 1, 2011, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published “Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs, Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue,” identifying 34 agencies, offices, and initiatives that provide similar or identical services to the same populations, along with 47 programs that are either wasteful or inefficient. The list includes 18 nutrition and food assistance programs, 47 job retraining programs, and 80 economic development programs, along with $77 billion of waste at the Department of Defense and $125 billion in improper payments by government agencies, among many others.

On February 28, 2012, the GAO issued its second report highlighting significant cases of duplication, overlap and lack of coordination between agencies and programs. This 426-page study highlights 51 areas where programs may be able to achieve greater efficiencies or become more effective in providing government services. The GAO’s recommendations include consolidating the 53 separate programs run by four federal agencies to provide economic development assistance to entrepreneurs; 14 programs across three departments for the administration of grants and loans to reduce diesel emissions; and 50 programs across 20 federal agencies promoting financial literacy. Senate Budget Committee Ranking Member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) released an analysis of the GAO reports, showing that $400 billion is spent each year on 1,500 duplicative, fragmented, and inefficient programs.

The new report also recommends numerous cost-saving measures that could save taxpayers billions of dollars, including cutting improper payments by Medicare and Medicaid, which totaled an estimated $65 billion in fiscal year 2011; enhancing coordination of federal agencies’ efforts to manage radio frequency spectrum and examining incentive mechanisms to foster more efficient spectrum use; replacing the $1 note with a $1 coin; consolidating federal offices; selling excess uranium at the Department of Energy; and enhancing the Internal Revenue Service’s enforcement and service capabilities to help reduce the gap between taxes owed and paid by collecting billions in tax revenue and facilitating voluntary compliance.

In its February 2012 report, GAO acknowledges that Congress has “taken actions to address” some of its 2011 recommendations. GAO’s assessment of progress made showed that four of the 81 areas, or 5 percent, were addressed; 60, or 74 percent, were partially addressed; and 17, or 21 percent, were not addressed. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has instructed agencies to consider areas of duplication or overlap identified by GAO and others in their fiscal year 2013 budget submissions and management plans.

Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) has been fighting to eliminate duplication and waste by publishing its Congressional Pig Book and Prime Cuts database since the 1990s. While it is gratifying to have a nonpartisan government oversight entity endorse so many of the cuts and consolidations that CAGW has long supported, Congress can no longer claim ignorance of these duplicative, bloated programs.

Not only should lawmakers work to cut these wasteful expenditures and consolidate overlapping agencies, they must also focus their efforts on putting mechanisms in place to cease enacting, funding, and implementing unnecessary new projects.

Despite a slew of reports from GAO, CAGW and many others, Congress seems oblivious to its own central role in bloating the federal leviathan. On June 29, 2011, to the taxpayers’ dismay, the Senate threw logic to the wind and voted down Senator Tom Coburn’s (R-Okla.) amendment, which would have prevented the creation of duplicative and overlapping federal programs. Senators voted 63-34 in favor of the amendment, but Senator Coburn still failed to gain the necessary 67 votes to secure passage. On February 2, 2012, Senator Coburn gave his amendment another go, but it failed again in a 60-39 vote.

Senator Coburn’s amendment would have required an independent review by the Congressional Research Service of every bill to determine if it creates new programs that duplicate existing programs before the legislation can be considered by the Senate. It would have also required an explanation as to why the creation of each new program, office or initiative is necessary if a similar program, office or initiative already exists.

This commonsense solution would help protect taxpayers from unnecessary and wasteful expansions of government and provide a new level of transparency for lawmakers and taxpayers. It is baffling to think that any lawmaker could oppose such a sensible and rational solution to a major problem. And yet, 39 of them did. Given the institution’s chronic ineptitude and well-documented dysfunction, it is not surprising that Congress is notoriously seen as a “logic-free zone,” and that its most recent approval ratings are at an abysmal 11 percent.

With taxpayers now facing a record-breaking $15.4 trillion national debt, it is time for Congress to do some spring cleaning: review and approve each of the GAO’s recommendations, pass Senator Coburn’s amendment to thwart the creation of future duplicative government programs, cut the wasteful expenditures that CAGW has highlighted for years, and start spending taxpayer dollars more frugally and efficiently.

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