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Is there $200 billion in duplicative federal spending?

(Melina Mara/ The Washington Post)

“I’m real disappointed in the [budget] deal. The GAO says we’ve got $200 billion in wasteful, duplicate spending every year. And what we do is we raise fees, raise money, steal money, raise the cost of pensions for federal workers.”

–Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Dec. 11, 2013

In expressing his disappointment about the new budget agreement on Capitol Hill, Sen. Coburn cited a fairly interesting figure that he attributed to the Government Accountability Office.

After all, the federal budget is nearly $4 trillion, with a good chunk of that being cash payments to Americans, and he’s saying that, just like that, at least 5 percent could be eliminated?

In the Morning Joe conversation, the Oklahoma Republican also asserted that  “we spend $31 billion a year on job training programs, of which all but three of those programs duplicate one another. In other words, do the same thing. That’s 48 different job training programs.”

Actually, he misspoke, according to a spokesman. The GAO’s figure is $18 billion for 47 programs—and GAO officials say no estimate has been made about how much could be saved if duplication is eliminated. The Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services have taken some preliminary steps to address administrative efficiencies in response to GAO’s findings.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into the $200-billion figure.

The Facts

Coburn is drawing his figure from an annual series of reports issued by the GAO since 2011. Here are links to the reports for 2011, 2012 and 2013.

The reports certainly are interesting reading, detailing the myriad ways that the government has overlapping and duplicative programs. One culprit is Congress itself, as various committees frequently impose new programs on the executive branch, often narrowly tailored to the interests of that particular committee.

The GAO also has produced an “Action Tracker” that documents the progress that the executive branch and Congress have made in responding to the hundreds of recommendations. Nikki Clowers, a senior GAO official involved in the project, noted that a recommendation on ending ethanol tax subsidies will save $5.7 billion a year and a recommendation to complete a business-case analysis of the Defense Department’s defense posture in the South Pacific will save $3.1 billion over four years.

But the reports themselves list few specific numbers. The numbers in the 2011 report only add up to about $25 billion in savings. Clowers said the GAO has avoided citing a grand total, in part because sometimes the agencies don’t have enough information about program costs to provide an estimate. So GAO simply identifies problems that should be addressed.

The most expansive that GAO will get is that it has identified “tens of billions” of dollars in savings. During a congressional hearing earlier this year, a lawmaker asked: “You had 381 recommendations since 2011, I think. What’s the total estimated ballpark of savings to the government if all 381 were implemented?”

Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro responded: “The estimate we have is tens of billions of dollars. We don’t have a specific estimate.”

So where does Coburn come up with his figure? It’s his own estimate, based on the reports. A standard chart put together by Coburn shows that $365 billion is spent on programs that are duplicated.  Could all of that be cut in half if the programs were consolidated? That’s really unclear, though certainly some of the other possible savings (such as reducing fraud) identified by GAO gets you in the ballpark.

Coburn has also put together an interesting Web site titled “Duplication Nation” that details the duplicate programs by Cabinet agency.

“The $200 billion figure is a very conservative low-ball estimate of potential savings that could be achieved in areas of duplication that have been identified by GAO.  You’re right that GAO doesn’t declare a ‘savings’ number because that is a judgment they leave to legislators,” said spokesman John Hart. “The bottom line: This isn’t duplication according to Coburn.  It’s duplication according to GAO.  GAO itself has identified program areas that account for far more than Dr. Coburn’s estimate of savings Congress could achieve.”

The Pinocchio Test

We are fairly convinced that there is meat behind Coburn’s number, and he is to be applauded for drawing attention to this issue.

But it is going a bit far to say that these are GAO figures. We understand it might be difficult to be precise when speaking on Morning Joe, but Coburn should be more careful to attribute the estimates to his own calculations while saying he is drawing on the work done by GAO. He also should avoid leaving the impression that little is being done to address the issue because, according to the GAO’s action tracker, some progress has been made.

One Pinocchio

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