Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is a big defender of the Government Accountability Office. (Alex Wong/GETTY IMAGES)

The nonpartisan congressional investigative office (which ranked third this week in the annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings) could face cuts of up to $42 million this fiscal year, a move that agency bosses say will result in furloughs, layoffs, delays in updating agency computers and supportive services that lawmakers fear could force cutbacks in the investigations and audits the office publishes almost daily.

At a time when Congress is meeting less, but increasing its own budget, GAO is churning out thousands of reports, testifying hundreds of times annually on Capitol Hill and identifying billions of dollars in savings — all with increasingly less money at its disposal, Coburn writes in a report released this week.

“Quite frankly, the reason the guidance of GAO is so important at this time is because Congress has increasingly ignored its own duties to oversee the functions of government,” the report says. “Even with a shrinking budget, GAO has continued to produce nearly 1,000 reports a year recommending billions of dollars in savings.”

Coburn’s office argues that while the federal budget increased 100 percent between 1992 and 2007, GAO’s budget was slashed by more than 20 percent in the same time period.

Despite that, “For every $1 spent on GAO, the agency provides $90 in savings recommendations,” Coburn says. “No other government agency can make such a claim. And in this era of trillion dollar deficits, Congress desperately needs this rate of return to get us out of the fiscal mess that we have created and so far have demonstrated little ability or willingness to solve.”

“There is no question every government program and agency, including GAO, must be thoroughly examined for savings to address our unprecedented fiscal challenges,” he adds, but notes later that “If the mission of GAO is compromised by excessive cuts, where else can Congress turn to find unbiased data to improve programs and save money?”

At the request of Congress, GAO investigators audit federal programs, identify potential cost savings, probe allegations of waste, fraud and abuse and track some of the government’s most at-risk agencies and programs.

Regardless of what its critics think of GAO, it’s hard to dispute the agency’s impressive output: Since 2001, it has received 10,477 requests from Congress and another 1,198 “mandates,” or instructed enshrined in law. That’s more than 1,000 reports or “mandates” addressed each year in the last decade, according to Coburn’s report.

House appropriators who oversee the congressional budget want to cut the GAO’s $546.3 million budget by nearly 6.4 percent this fiscal year, while Senate appropriators would cut funds by about 7.5 percent. GAO this year is asking for about $556 million.

In response to the report, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who is responsible for setting the congressional and GAO budget, said Wednesday that “Nebraskans want Washington to cut spending and balance the budget. Cuts won’t be easy and agency by agency there will be resistance. I intend to put the interests of Nebraska taxpayers ahead of Washington bureaucrats and make cuts where we can.”

Nelson’s office on Wednesday wouldn’t confirm reports this week that the Nebraskan and his Republican counterpart, John Hoeven (N.D.), may be willing to give GAO more money than originally proposed.

Regardless, Coburn said he will keep fighting for more money. A host of agencies, federal programs and interest groups are set to endure big budget losses this year, but few of them have a lawmaker fighting so hard as Coburn is for GAO.

Follow Ed O’Keefe on Twitter: @edatpost

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Further reading:

GAO report details mismanaged federal programs

Budget cuts at GAO may force furloughs

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