Government overlap costs taxpayers billions, GAO reports
Updated 3:15 p.m. ET
You think the government redundancies President Obama recently griped about were bad? Federal auditors found plenty more.
During his State of the Union address, Obama noted that 12 federal agencies or offices deal with international trade and at least two regulate salmon. Top administration officials are planning to revamp how the government handles trade issues -- and may later turn to other programs.
They'll have plenty to choose from, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Tuesday. The U.S. government has more than 100 programs dealing with surface transportation issues, 82 monitoring teacher quality, 80 for economic development, 47 for job training, 20 offices or programs devoted to homelessness and 17 different grant programs for disaster preparedness. Another 15 agencies or offices handle food safety, and five are working to ensure the federal government uses less gasoline.
"Reducing or eliminating duplication, overlap, or fragmentation could potentially save billions of taxpayer dollars annually and help agencies provide more efficient and effective services," the GAO said. Merging or terminating operations as recommended in the report could save up to several billion dollars.
The study, mandated last year as part of legislation raising the federal debt limit, is likely to be cited by lawmakers pushing for deeper spending cuts as part of ongoing budget negotiations. Several congressional offices received advanced copies of the report on Monday; The Washington Post obtained a written summary from congressional aides.
"This report will make us look like jackasses," Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who read the report, told reporters Monday. He sponsored the amendment requiring the report's publication.
An outspoken critic of government waste, Coburn has said that Congress and the executive branch are equally to blame for failing to control spending. Last Halloween, his office published a report concluding that the federal government has paid nearly $1 billion to at least 250,000 dead people since 2000.
A considerable amount of the GAO report focuses on redundancies at the Pentagon -- where leaders are already pushing for budget cuts. Each military service maintains separate buildings, computers and personnel to address the health concerns of service members and veterans, but they could all be merged together, the report said.
A 2006 Defense Department study recommended a unified medical command, but nothing came of it. The idea could have saved taxpayers between $281 million and $460 million, the GAO said. Consolidating the Pentagon's contract acquisition offices, military intelligence operations and efforts to track improvised explosive devices could save tens of billions more, it said.
Much of the Obama administration's economic stimulus program has relied on the distribution of federal highway construction dollars, but the government's approach to the issue remains mired in the 1950s, auditors said. Federal transportation issues now involve more than 6,000 workers at five agencies within the Transportation Department, running about 100 separate funding streams for highways, transit systems, rail and transportation safety, the report said. The overlap costs an estimated $58 billion annually.
Through the years, several GAO reports have explored the issue of government redundancy, most recently reporting last month that nine federal agencies spend $18 billion a year on 47 separate job training programs. All but three of the programs overlap with others.
As The Federal Eye and colleague Karen Tumulty reported in January, presidents since Harry Truman have tried slicing through the morass of the federal government's structure, often bumping up against powerful special interest groups and congressional committees wary of curtailing their oversight powers.
"It is a situation in which small, narrowly based groups who have what they want and are afraid of losing it inevitably have proven stronger than large groups with more or less amorphous and less single-minded attitudes," Caspar W. Weinberger, President Richard M. Nixon's budget director, wrote in 1978 as he recalled a six-month initiative that merged the government's domestic functions into four super-departments.
Since then, Bill Clinton's "reinventing government" initiative cut the size of the federal workforce, and Obama, a former senator and close colleague of Coburn, spoke during his presidential campaign about the need to make the government work better.
"The president has made it a priority to reform government and make it more effective and efficient for the American people, which is why his budget reflects a commitment to streamlining government and saving taxpayer dollars," White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage said in response to the report.
Upon taking office, Obama quickly appointed a chief performance officer, a new position meant to tackle government organizational issues.
Jeffrey D. Zients, who holds the position, will lead Obama's efforts to overhaul federal trade issues and is also leading efforts to reduce the government's real estate portfolio. His colleagues Aneesh Chopra and Vivek Kundra -- the government's chief technology and chief information officers, respectively -- are also working on consolidating 2,100 data centers used by federal agencies.
A good idea, according to GAO. The government used just 432 data centers in 1998, and consolidating the ones used today could save taxpayers up to $200 billion in the next decade.
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| March 1, 2011; 6:00 AM ET
Categories: Eye Opener, Oversight, Turf War
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