This article incorrectly said that overlaps in federal transportation funding cost an estimated $58 billion annually. The $58 billion figure represents the GAO's estimate for the total cost of the approximately 100 separate federal funding streams for highways, transit systems, rail, and transportation safety.
Government overlap costs taxpayers billions, GAO reports
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
With Congress and the White House set to debate the merits of massive spending cuts, federal auditors have identified hundreds of overlapping government offices and programs that if merged or eliminated could save taxpayers billions of dollars.
The U.S. government has, for example, more than 100 programs dealing with surface transportation issues, 82 that monitor teacher quality, 80 for economic development, 56 for "financial literacy," 20 offices or programs devoted to homelessness and 17 grant programs for disaster preparedness, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Tuesday. Among other redundancies, 15 agencies or offices handle food safety, and five agencies are working to ensure that the federal government uses less gasoline.
"Reducing or eliminating duplication, overlap, or fragmentation could potentially save billions of taxpayer dollars annually and help agencies provide more efficient and effective services," the GAO said.
The study, ordered last year as part of legislation raising the federal debt limit, quickly earned the attention of lawmakers eager to identify potential spending cuts.
Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who sponsored the amendment requiring the report's publication, has said Congress and the executive branch are equally to blame for failing to control spending. Coburn has been an outspoken critic of government waste.
Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, called the report "a battle plan for the ongoing war against wasteful federal spending."
"The weak economy and an unsupportable debt demand that we find cost savings wherever we can," Lieberman said. "This report points us in the right direction."
Much of the GAO report focuses on redundancies at the Pentagon, where leaders already are pushing for budget cuts. Each military service maintains separate buildings, computers and personnel to address the health concerns of service members and veterans, but they could be merged, the report said.
A 2006 Defense Department study recommended a unified medical command, but nothing came of it. The idea could have saved taxpayers between $281 million and $460 million, the GAO said. Consolidating the Pentagon's contract acquisition offices, military intelligence operations and efforts to track improvised explosive devices could save tens of billions more, it said.
Much of the Obama administration's economic stimulus program has relied on the distribution of federal highway construction dollars, but the government's approach remains mired in the 1950s, auditors said. Federal transportation involves more than 6,000 workers at five agencies within the Transportation Department, running about 100 funding streams for highways, transit systems, rail and safety, the report said. The overlap costs an estimated $58 billion annually.
Presidents since Harry S. Truman have attempted to eliminate redundancies only to bump up against powerful special-interest groups and congressional committees wary of reductions to the programs they oversee.
"It is a situation in which small, narrowly based groups who have what they want and are afraid of losing it inevitably have proven stronger than large groups with more or less amorphous and less single-minded attitudes," Caspar W. Weinberger, President Richard M. Nixon's budget director, wrote in 1978 as he recalled a six-month initiative that merged the government's domestic functions into a handful of "super-departments."