Congressional Oversight Needs Improvement | Citizens Against Government Waste

Congressional Oversight Needs Improvement

The WasteWatcher

The House and Senate convened for the 111th Congress facing a record budget deficit and are currently considering a massive “stimulus” spending package.  Now, more than ever, increased oversight of federal programs is essential to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being spent effectively.  Congress has for far too long failed to adequately perform its oversight responsibilities.  While holding more hearings would be helpful, this in and of itself is no guarantee that problems will be identified and corrected.  The Obama Administration has promised oversight of how the stimulus money is spent, including the establishment of a new “recovery” website, but that will only happen after hundreds of billions of tax dollars go out the door and only address that legislation.  The President has also appointed a chief performance officer in the White House.

Proposals being considered in Congress include requirements to hold hearings in response to inspector generals (IGs), the Government Accountability Office (GAO), certain agency audit reports, and the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB) Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) performance reviews.  In fact, on January 14, 2009 the House passed H. Res. 40, which would amend House rules to mandate that congressional committees hold at least one meeting every 120 days on waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement in the government programs under the committee's jurisdiction.  The additional hearings may be useful, but the resolution does not address Congress’s failure to assure taxpayers that committees will respond effectively to eliminate or prevent and wasteful spending that is identified in those hearings.

As Kenneth Mead, special counsel at the law firm Baker Botts LLP and former inspector general at the Department of Transportation told The Washington Post on January 5, 2009, not only should hearings occur when a report on wasteful agency spending is issued, but also to announce the steps agencies are taking to stop waste and fraud in the first place.

In 2002, OMB created PART, which was aimed at improving a program’s effectiveness while identifying its strengths and weaknesses.  About 98 percent of all federal programs have been assessed by OMB, but there is little information available to describe what Congress has done in response. 

In 1990, GAO initiated its annual High Risk Series, which identifies and reports on which government operations are most vulnerable to waste and mismanagement.  On January 22, 2009, 30 programs were identified as high risk areas, six of which have been on the list since 1990, including the enforcement of tax laws and Medicare.

In 1978, Congress passed the Inspector General Act.  The job description includes conducting independent and objective audits to promote efficiency and eliminate waste.  Today the IG community has grown from 11 to 57 positions and their reports routinely identify billions of dollars lost to waste, fraud and abuse.

H. Res. 40 will only be helpful if the hearings produce prompt and remedial action.  Significant reduction in wasteful spending can only be achieved through collaboration and coordination among the numerous committees with jurisdiction over programs and agencies.  Parading senior agency officials before a plethora of committees will not be effective.  Finally, these oversight activities should be coordinated with the new chief performance officer at the White House in order to provide the best results for taxpayers.

  -- Deirdre Clark