GAO has good ideas on ending the overlap of federal programs

Joe Davidson
Columnist March 15, 2012

With all of the legislative proposals to reduce their pay and benefits, federal employees can be excused if they assume that’s the only way Capitol Hill knows how to save money.

In fact, the Government Accountability Office has presented a thoughtful plan to Congress with many sensible ideas that can draw bipartisan support.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

GAO’s second annual report on duplication among government programs is not a titillating read. Talk about a cumbersome bureaucracy seems old hat. The House hearing at which the report was discussed last month was a poorly attended and pretty dull affair, though the generally bipartisan agreement there was refreshing.

I confess to blowing off the meeting to cover another assignment and I’m just now catching up to the hearing online. It was well worth the look back.

GAO’s study is a budget blueprint that could lead to far greater savings than the $60 billion over 10 years the federal pay freeze will generate and without dismantling major parts of the government as some Republicans would like.

While the title of the report — “More Efficient and Effective Government: Opportunities to Reduce Duplication, Overlap and Fragmentation, Achieve Savings, and Enhance Revenue” — demonstrates no tendency to save words, GAO estimates that implementing suggestions in this and related studies “could potentially save tens of billions of dollars annually.”

The 2012 report identifies 51 areas “that could either reduce the cost of government operations or enhance revenue collections for the Treasury,” Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro said in his Feb. 28 testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Those areas of overlap are in the executive branch, but Congress was identified, by one of its own, as the real culprit.

“Who is to blame for this maze of government programs?” asked Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) in his testimony. “Very simply, it is Congress. We are all culpable. And to be sure, the blame does not rest on one party or the other, it lies with both. Duplication in this country has been created by the ruling class of career politicians seeking to slap short-term fixes on problems in order to claim credit at home and recognition in Washington.”

GAO provided these examples, among many more:

l There were “20 different entities that administer 160 programs, tax expenditures, and other tools that supported homeownership and rental housing in fiscal year 2010.”

l Duplication of Defense Department and Veterans Affairs health-care programs has led to “inadequate information exchange and poor coordination between these programs” and “confusion and frustration for enrollees, particularly when case managers and care coordinators duplicate or contradict one another’s efforts.”

l The Navy “plans to spend more than $3 billion to develop the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] rather than the already fielded Air Force Global Hawk system on which it was based.”

l Promotion of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education has produced 209 programs in 13 agencies. Eighty-three percent of the programs “overlapped to some degree with at least 1 other program in that they offered similar services to target groups . . . to achieve similar objectives.”

In a blog post the day of the hearing, Danny Werfel, controller of the Office of Federal Financial Management, called on Congress to approve reform proposals in President Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget and to “pass the Reforming and Consolidating Government Act the Administration sent to the Hill earlier this year which will set up an expedited process to review government consolidation proposals.”

The Obama administration is already moving to consolidate “1,200 data centers by the end of 2015 — over 100 of which have already been shuttered and 500 of which will [be] closed by the end of this year,” he added. “We are also moving fast to cut excess real estate costs across civilian agencies,” with a projected savings of more than $3 billion by the end of this year.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the committee, injected a lonely note of partisan discord into the hearing when he said Obama’s “request for reorganizational authority is dead on arrival in this committee unless the administration is willing to be much bigger in their thought.”

No one else on either side of the aisle wanted to turn the discussion into the kind of partisan bickering that often consumes Congress. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, said he disagreed with “not one syllable” in Republican Coburn’s testimony.

After lamenting the absence of so many committee members at the hearing, Coburn did appear to disagree with Issa’s position on Obama’s reorganization plans. “I applaud the administration’s proposal,” he said. “I’m supportive and working with them to try to do it.”

Coburn basically pleaded with Congress to act on the report.

“GAO’s work presents Washington with literally hundreds of options for areas in which we could make a decision now to start finding savings, potentially hundreds of billions of dollars,” he said. “If we, as members of Congress, are unable to agree on eliminating even one small duplicative program or tax credit, when clearly we know there are hundreds, we have little hope of ever coming to a comprehensive compromise for fixing our floundering budget.”

Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson. Follow the Federal Diary on Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP.

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