The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

GAO Duplication Report Pinpoints the Waste in Washington

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


When House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) famously exclaimed, “The cupboard is bare! There’s no more cuts to make,” in 2013, the national debt stood at $17 trillion.  Since then, the debt has risen to more than $19 trillion with no sign of abatement.  Members of Congress often use this growing figure as a prelude to promise to cut “waste, fraud, and abuse,” especially as they campaign for their jobs.  But, once they return or first come to Washington, they seem to have a hard time eliminating the waste, even though it is fairly easy to locate.

The mission of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which is a branch of Congress, is to “ensure the accountability of the federal government for the benefit of the American people.”  During the course of that often herculean endeavor, GAO submits hundreds of reports on overall “government efficiency and effectiveness,” which can include in-depth analyses of individual federal programs, as well as an annual review of improper payments.  One of GAO’s most valuable publications is its annual report on duplicative and overlapping programs, based on a 2010 law requiring such reports.

On April 13, 2016, Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee regarding GAO’s sixth annual report on “Opportunities to Reduce Fragmentation, Overlap, and Duplication and Achieve Other Financial Benefits.”  Since 2011, GAO has made 544 recommendations in its annual reports.  While Congress and the executive branch should be commended for achieving $56 billion in financial savings over the past five years based on partially addressing these findings, a disappointing 41 percent of all of GAO’s recommendations and a meager 13 percent of the 2015 recommendations have been fully addressed.  If all of GAO’s recommendations were adopted, the agency estimates that “tens of billions of additional dollars would be saved.”

The 2016 report includes “92 new actions for Congress or executive branch agencies to reduce, eliminate, or better manage fragmentation, overlap, and duplication and achieve other financial benefits.”  GAO found that the majority of the duplication, overlap, and fragmentation was housed in three departments:  Health and Human Services (HHS), Defense (DOD), and Treasury, which includes the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).  

The report makes numerous references to improper payments in multiple areas of the federal government.  GAO’s February 25, 2016 Consolidated Annual Financial Statement report revealed that government-wide improper payments reached an all-time high of $136.7 billion in FY 2015.  Since 2004, the federal government has improperly paid out $1.13 trillion.  The main culprit in these bogus payments is HHS, which alone squandered $89.8 billion in FY 2015.  For example, GAO’s 2016 duplication report found that when it comes to monitoring the transition from Obamacare’s subsidized coverage to Medicaid, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ safeguards are “not sufficient based on federal standards for internal control.”  In other words, individuals may be receiving both subsidized Obamacare coverage and Medicaid payments. 

GAO’s 2016 report found that the Social Security Administration (SSA) has not fully addressed the growing amount of Disability Insurance overpayments.  In FY 2014, SSA identified $1.3 billion in such payments, in part because Congress still allows individuals to collect both full Social Security Disability Insurance benefits and Unemployment Insurance at the same time.  The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that eliminating this double-dipping would save $1.9 billion over the next 10 years.    The Treasury department’s Earned Income Tax Credit program had $15.6 billion in improper payments and the Social Security Administration’s errant payments totaled $7.1 billion. 

The IRS currently sustains a tax gap of $385 billion, which is the difference between taxes owed and ultimately collected by the agency.  GAO found two critical areas currently hampering the agency that contribute to the burgeoning gap.  First, there are nine public referral programs to report if someone is not paying taxes, but there is no formalized way for these programs to share information.  The agency could save billions if this lack of coordination is corrected.  Second, stolen identity refund fraud cause the IRS to pay $3.1 billion in fraudulent refunds in 2015, and that figure is only based on the IRS’ available data.  The total number of fraudulent payments is likely much higher. 

The 2016 report also highlights a mounting problem of obsolete information technology (IT) systems in the federal government.  For example, the Department of Homeland Security was supposed to integrate and modernize its 422 different human resources systems and applications in 2003.  GAO found that “limited progress” has been made, and none of its many recommendations in this area have been addressed. 

The federal government spends more than $1 billion on mobile devices per year; however, “GAO found that among 15 selected agencies, only 5 had complete service and device inventories.”  Therefore, most agencies are unable to know when taxpayer-funded devices are no longer needed or are being abused. 

The 2016 report also cites many other outlandish examples of government duplication run amok, one of the most obvious being the existence of two programs in two different agencies that are tasked with inspecting the same type of catfish.  There are 45 programs in nine different agencies for employment for people with disabilities.  The federal government operates more than 90 different programs to foster the construction of green buildings in the private sector.   In FY 2014, unobligated balances, or the amount of money not spent by an agency or department, stood at $870 billion.  All of these glaring inefficiencies are fully detailed by GAO in the nearly 400-page report.

Sitting alongside Comptroller General Dodaro during his April 27 testimony was former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), a longtime fighter against government waste, fraud and abuse.  During his opening statement, Sen. Coburn uncorked a bristling critique of his former colleagues for their inaction on reports such as GAO’s latest on duplication and overlap:  “America doesn’t trust you anymore.  That’s the truth.  Because they don’t see the actions coming out of Congress that should be coming out.”  He continued, “You have hundreds of billions of dollars that could be saved and aren’t, and they know it.”  Sen. Coburn was speaking for the millions of taxpayers who are clearly tired of Washington bureaucrats and politicians like Minority Leader Pelosi howling that there simply are not any more ways to save their money.  Taxpayers know that statement is nonsense, and every year GAO makes that abundantly clear. 

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