Federal Spending & Waste: Reform Could Shed Light

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How Congress could hold federal agencies accountable for their spending.

Fiscal conservatives haven’t had much to cheer on Capitol Hill in recent years. Even before the pandemic, Republican and Democratic leaders alike embraced a long-term path of deficit spending. The federal government’s debt is projected to grow faster than the nation’s economy, and there appears to be little political will to address the government’s structural fiscal challenges.

But there’s new hope that Congress will soon eliminate significant waste from the federal budget, thanks to a bipartisan effort by the House Appropriations Committee. Representatives Tim Ryan (D., Ohio) and Jaime Herrera Beutler (R., Wash.), the chairman and ranking member of the Legislative Branch Subcommittee, included report language for a 2022 spending bill requiring the Government Accountability Office to tell Congress how much federal agencies waste by ignoring the congressional watchdog’s recommendations.

“The Committee is concerned with the potential waste of federal tax dollars due to departments and agencies in the Federal Government not implementing GAO recommendations,” the report states. The report directs the comptroller general to provide Congress with a breakdown of the estimated financial costs of open recommendations by agency within 180 days.

As of this week, the GAO reports that more than 4,800 recommendations remain open, including 460 priority recommendations. If implemented, the GAO says, these reforms “can save large amounts of money, help Congress make decisions on major issues, and substantially improve or transform major government programs or agencies, among other benefits.”

How much potential savings are we talking about? The answer is in the ballpark of tens (if not hundreds) of billions of dollars annually.

As background, the Government Accountability Office provides annual estimates of its return on investment. Last year, the comptroller general reported that the agency’s work saved $77.6 billion, which amounts to an ROI of $114 for every dollar Congress spent on the GAO. Since 1999, GAO’s work has delivered more than $1.1 trillion in savings and 25,000 nonfinancial benefits (i.e., qualitative improvements in agency spending). According to the GAO’s public estimates, the agency’s oversight of the Defense and HHS Departments has resulted in the most savings, $275 billion and $128 billion, respectively.

But significant savings are left on the table when federal agencies are slow to implement GAO’s recommendations. The comptroller general reports that agencies implement 77 percent of GAO’s recommendations within four years. But only half are addressed after two. For example, the Defense and HHS Departments together currently have more than 1,400 open recommendations. Fully implementing these reforms could match or exceed the more than $400 billion in estimated savings that GAO has recorded overseeing those agencies since 1999.

By requiring the comptroller general to estimate the financial cost of all of GAO’s open recommendations by agency, Congress and American taxpayers will finally know just how much federal agencies are wasting. This information will provide a blueprint for Congress to press agencies to implement cost-saving measures by conducting oversight, reducing appropriations, and reforming federal programs.

Congress already has a model for leveraging GAO’s nonpartisan oversight to cut federal waste. In 2010, former Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) passed an amendment to legislation that raised the debt ceiling to require GAO to annually report on duplication across federal agencies and programs. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro has described Senator Coburn’s amendment as “the gift that keeps on giving.” Between 2011 and 2019, GAO’s annual duplication reports saved taxpayers more than $400 billion. The agency estimates that “tens of billions more” could be saved if Congress and the executive branch fully implemented its recommendations to address duplication.

The House 2022 legislative branch spending bill was approved by the Appropriations Committee in late June. It now must be approved by the House chamber and then the Senate. But there’s good reason for optimism that it will pass along with the report language.

The Government Accountability Office, which marks its 100th anniversary on Wednesday, has broad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Most Democrats and Republicans in Congress routinely cite GAO in congressional hearings and rely on its nonpartisan findings to inform their oversight and legislation. Requiring the comptroller general to identify how much federal agencies could save by fully implementing GAO’s recommendations is a natural starting point for trimming waste from the federal budget. And it’s a good first step to addressing the nation’s long-term fiscal challenges.

Dan Lips is Vice President for National Security and Government Oversight with Lincoln Network. He worked for former senator Tom Coburn from 2011 to 2015.

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