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GAO's New 'High Risk' List a Kick in the Government's Pants

By Ed O'Keefe

Today the General Accountability Office released its review of the federal government’s "high risk" areas, a biennial report card released at the start of each new Congress that lists what it considers serious weaknesses in government programs, practices and offices. This year's list highlights 30 issues, including fresh concerns about the nation's financial regulatory system, the oversight of medical products as conducted by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency’s assessment and control of toxic chemicals. The report is intended to serve as a kick in the federal government's pants, reminding all agencies and departments that they need to think seriously about the best ways to get the job done.

The nation's financial regulatory systems, for example, need more oversight and better management, according to the report, especially for new initiatives intended to combat the economic crisis, including the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). But GAO suggests the government also needs to start thinking long-term about reshaping the way it regulates financial markets. GAO writes that "determining how to create a regulatory system that reflects new market realities is a key step to reducing the likelihood that the nation will experience a similar financial crisis in the future."

As for the FDA, the report found that although the scope of its regulatory authority had expanded, its resources had not "increased in proportion to the growing demands placed on it," compromising the agency's ability to fulfill its mission. The report raises particular concern over FDA's inspection of foreign drug and device manufacturers, its "monitoring of postmarket safety of approved products" and its oversight of advertising and marketing of prescription drugs. The report finds, for example, that in 2007 the FDA received 68,000 submissions of promotional materials to review (the result of more than $10 billion in promotions for medical professionals and direct-to-consumer advertising), but had no more than 44 full-time staffers assigned to review such materials, meaning they must prioritize and review only the most urgent submissions.

"We have found that this prioritization is not systematic, and, as a result, the agency cannot ensure it is identifying those materials that may have the greatest adverse effect on public health," according to GAO. This means FDA not only needs more money and staffing, but could also use a review of its priorities.

As for the EPA, a lack of resources and certain management decisions have raised concerns about how it assesses and controls toxic chemicals. The agency has delayed assessing some chemicals while it waits for new research and analyses, but the decision to wait "can have a significant impact on assessment completion dates, delaying the agency’s ability to protect the public from exposure to toxic chemicals. GAO suggests that EPA base assessments "based on the best science available at the time," thus reducing the backlog.

The 99-page report also highlights the need for greater oversight as well as money for staffing and resources. But it really stresses the need to start rethinking the way things are done.

"Federal waste and troubled programs don't leave office with an outgoing President," Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said of the new report. "If President Obama takes 30 minutes to review this report he won't read about the failures of his three predecessors, but about the continuing failure of a non-partisan Federal bureaucracy that is resistant to reform."

That may be true, but Congress also will have to do its part. Last week's passage of a new House oversight rules and commitments from Democrats and Republicans tasked with oversight signal that government waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement may finally get more attention from official Washington. And while the new administration and Congress need to address the 30 total concerns listed by GAO, it should also account for why six items have appeared on every compilation since it first appeared in 1990 and 12 for more than 10 years. More on that in the coming days.

By Ed O'Keefe  | January 22, 2009; 12:45 PM ET
Categories:  Agencies and Departments, Oversight  
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I hope the new Administration takes this report with a grain of salt. The parts I looked at didn't seem reasonable. For example, talking about changing the Federal food safety network, the report states that "FDA is responsible for
about 80 percent of the food supply and yet accounts for about 24 percent of
expenditures......On the other hand, USDA is responsible for regulating about 20 percent of the food supply and accounts for the majority of expenditures." If you take a look in the President's Budget, you'll see that USDA spent about $1 billion in 2008 on meat inspections and the FDA spent over $2 billion. Somehow that doesn't seem like USDA accounting for the majority of expenditures.

Posted by: GroovisMaximus61 | January 22, 2009 1:46 PM | Report abuse

It's hard for me to get excited about a report that finds risk only after everyone else is already on the dogpile. Now, if they identified problems BEFORE they happened, THAT would be exciting.

Posted by: Sloy | January 22, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

One more item needs to be added to the high-risk list:CPS Reform.

Posted by: unhappygrammy | January 22, 2009 8:10 PM | Report abuse

It's about time something is being done. I was just reading another article ( about how shoulder pain pumps were used in ways for which they were never FDA-approved and now all sorts of people are having problems, are suing, and may need more surgery. Worse, there was an FDA mix-up involved in how the devices were incorrectly approved.

Posted by: Cynthia111 | January 24, 2009 10:54 AM | Report abuse

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