As President Biden pushes big spending plans to spur the country’s economic recovery, he might welcome suggestions for saving a few bucks — or much more. One is as simple as checking arithmetic.
GAO expects the total financial benefits that resulted from suggestions it made in previous efficiency reports over the past decade to eventually total as much as $429 billion. “But there’s tens of billions of dollars yet in the offing,” Gene L. Dodaro, the government’s comptroller general, told a May 12 Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee hearing.
Watching Dodaro testify is as close to a work of art as can be found in a congressional hearing. Unlike many officials, he speaks without notes about a variety of unrelated programs across the broad scope of the federal government.
“This year, we have over 112 new recommendations for consideration by the Congress and the executive branch,” Dodaro told senators. “The first has to do with leveraging the government’s enormous potential purchasing power by pulling together to purchase common items, medical supplies, office supplies, etcetera. There’s been some progress in this area, but there can be much, much more that result in significant savings.”
Coordinating the purchase of common goods and services would help save billions over the next five years, GAO predicted, while potentially eliminating duplicative contracts.
The report also urges Congress to give the Internal Revenue Service the “authority — with appropriate safeguards — to correct math errors” in tax returns and set requirements for paid tax preparers to improve accuracy.
“These actions could help reduce the substantial tax gap and increase revenues,” GAO said. The tax gap — the difference between taxes owed and taxes collected — averages about $381 billion annually.
The GAO report said other potential efficiency and cost-savings actions include:
●Extending cost-reduction and efficiency programs at two of the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration sites to other locations. The programs saved $515 million over five years. Yet “GAO continues to believe that NNSA will not fully address this recommendation” despite making “good first steps.” Nuclear security officials told GAO they did not plan to more broadly implement the cost-savings program because of uncertainties about potential savings and “the costs of overseeing the program.”
●Basing the Defense Department’s calculation of payments for military personnel in private housing on national instead of local average rates, which “could potentially result in millions of dollars of savings.”
●Improving coordination of infectious-disease work by the Department of Health and Human Services to better identify duplication and overlap among agencies could improve the response to disease outbreaks.
Unlike much of what passes for government work on Capitol Hill, GAO’s reports often receive a bipartisan welcome.
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), chairwoman of the spending oversight subcommittee, praised Dodaro and his analysts “for their efforts to not only identify areas of government waste, but also to provide constructive recommendations for eliminating that waste to save substantial taxpayer dollars.”
She and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the top Republican on the panel, are co-sponsors of legislation that directly responds to GAO recommendations from its 2019 and 2020 reports. She also co-sponsored his bill that would require GAO to review future legislation to determine whether it would lead to duplication of government programs.
“One thing I always hear from taxpayers is frustration with government waste,” Paul said at the hearing. “Despite Americans’ desire for less waste, little around here gets done to fix the problem. To its credit, GAO has made great strides identifying areas for us to work on.”
He took a shot at the Food and Drug Administration and the Agriculture Department for competing over food regulations and arriving “at some strange decisions.”
“For example, for products containing poultry, the FDA regulates items with 2 percent cooked poultry meat, while the rest are regulated by the USDA,” Paul said. “This is so arcane. I don’t think anyone alive knows why the FDA has certain poultry products and the USDA has the rest, but it doesn’t make any sense.”
Citing laws passed by Congress, an FDA statement said the USDA generally regulates food containing poultry, but “food that contains a very small proportion of poultry or that historically has not been considered by consumers to be a product of the poultry industry . . . is regulated by the FDA.”
To Paul’s point, Dodaro said “actually, there are 15 different agencies administering 30 different laws in food safety.”
Hassan said she has pressed the Biden administration to complete a federal program inventory to better identify wasteful programs.
Even agency officials “don’t know what’s going on across the rest of the federal government in an easily identifiable fashion,” Dodaro added.
As important as GAO’s work is, it also is known for its dry reports.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) urged Dodaro to be “as blunt as you can be. . . . I have noticed over the past five or six years, you’re being more careful in how you word things.”
Sticking to the just-the-facts tone that characterizes GAO, Dodaro replied: “I will be as blunt as the evidence allows me to be.”