The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Report says federal fragmentation, overlap, duplication abound

Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro, head of the Government Accountability Office, testifies before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in 2009. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

The Government Accountability Office keeps Uncle Sam’s to-do lists.

One of the most anticipated by Congress is the annual list of fragmentation, duplication and overlap in government programs. It shows how Sam can step on his own toes, wasting resources in the process.

The GAO released its sixth annual list last week, providing elected officials with plenty of ammunition to fire at their favorite bureaucratic targets.

In the first five reports, “we presented over 200 areas and 544 actions for Congress or executive branch agencies to reduce, eliminate, or better manage fragmentation . . . greater efficiency or effectiveness,” Gene L. Dodaro, the U.S. comptroller general and GAO head, said in his letter fronting the report.

Before members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee took aim at agencies during a Wednesday hearing on the report, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, told Congress to first heal thyself.

Cummings said the latest report “shows that Congress could be doing much more to foster a more efficient, effective and accountable government.”

“According to GAO, the executive branch has fully or partially completed 81 percent of GAO’s recommendations,” he added. “That is an impressive success rate, particularly in light of the budget cuts agencies have endured in recent years.

“Congress, on the other hand, has implemented only about 46 percent of GAO’s recommendations. Even that 46 percent is kind of generous because GAO gives Congress credit for taking ‘partial’ action by just moving a bill through committee, even if it has not been passed either in the House or Senate.”

Legislative shortcomings didn’t get much attention from legislators at the hearing. They focused on a number of other problems that weaken Sam’s operation.

The numbers, pulled by the majority Republicans from the report, indicate the broad scope of issues examined by the GAO’s small staff:

37 — new areas “identified by the GAO as being in need of reform.”

41 — the percentage of recommended actions “fully addressed since 2011.”

63 — the percentage of 346 GAO-recommended actions for the Health and Human Services, Treasury, and Defense departments that have been open since 2011.

$125 billion — savings to be gained from fully implementing the GAO’s recommendations.

In specific areas, the GAO said the Internal Revenue Service “could potentially collect billions of dollars . . . by better managing fragmentation and overlap, improving communication, and streamlining processes.”

John M. Dalrymple, an IRS deputy commissioner, said in written testimony that “there are more actions categorized as ‘not addressed’ than we would like.” But he placed that in the context of Congress not providing tax collectors with adequate funding. IRS’s appropriation is $900 million below fiscal 2010 levels, Dalrymple said. Even with an increase of $290 million this year, the IRS struggles with reduced staffing and resources.

The mammoth Defense Department could more effectively use the $100 billion it spends annually on weapons systems, GAO reported, by reducing “the potential for overlapping and unnecessarily duplicative investments.” Federal civilian agencies could save millions if they were allowed to obtain excess Defense property, including office furniture, some equipment and vehicles, through the Pentagon’s disposal process, the report said, “rather than purchasing similar property through a private sector supplier.”

David Tillotson III, assistant deputy chief management officer at the Defense Department, sought to assure the committee that the Pentagon “has always taken its duty to be an excellent steward of taxpayer dollars very seriously, and we look forward to working with the GAO on improvement opportunities.”

In health care, the GAO found that because of limited oversight, “some hospitals’ total Medicaid payments exceeded the hospitals’ total operating cost — that is, cost for all hospital services provided to all patients the hospital served.”

Speaking for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Patrick Conway said in written testimony that the agency is “using a multi-faceted approach to strengthen our programs by more closely aligning payments with the costs of providing care.”

We’ll call him a Medicare-Medicaid official because his title is 20 words long. (For the curious, it is “acting principal deputy administrator, deputy administrator for innovation and quality, and chief medical officer, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services.”)

Perhaps the GAO should examine how much money could be saved in printing costs if government titles were limited in length.

Read more: 

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