More of the Same

The success of any Obama administration bid to eliminate overlapping or duplicative programs may hinge on bipartisan cooperation from a turf-conscious Congress as well as clear and enduring methods of measuring progress.

Efforts to curb the proliferation of education programs promoting science and math, for example, “will obviously mean some folks are not pleased at losing their programs,” the top White House science adviser recently told a Senate panel. “But agencies understand the need for greater coherence in administering them.”

John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology, was testifying before the Senate Budget Committee’s Task Force on Government Performance about strategies for government reorganization. The topic is being championed by task force leader Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who intends to introduce a bill—as he did in the previous Congress—to give President Obama the same authority chief executives had before the 1980s to consolidate agencies to streamline management and save money. 

“Any CEO worth his or her salt knows this is a key tool,” Warner said, adding that during his first year in the Senate, he identified 11 programs that the George W. Bush and Obama administrations agreed should be ended. “You quickly learn it’s the hardest thing, particularly across departments and with Congress’ authorization entities. Each program has a champion within government or Congress.”

The Government Accountability Office during the past three years has identified 300 steps agencies could take in 131 program areas to reduce duplication. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro at the hearing highlighted recent recommendations, which target the military services’ separate pursuit of uniforms, renewable energy initiatives at 23 agencies and duplication of investments in geospatial information technology among multiple federal and state agencies.

But making headway, Dodaro said, will depend on improved congressional oversight, clear measures of progress that are kept in place, and more joint  and multiple committee hearings on the administration’s 14 cross-agency goals required under the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act. “Unless Congress pays attention, it won’t be sufficient to meet our long-term fiscal challenges,” he said. “It’s not the program person’s job to stop the program—in fact, the incentives are the opposite.”

The comptroller did cite progress. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, for example, recently saved $15 million by canceling duplicative audits of program integrity contracts. But at least 21 percent of GAO’s recommendations still have not been addressed, he said.

Dodaro said government programs duplicate themselves through a process of accretion over decades. He also pointed to new target populations for training programs and the Defense Department’s “service-specific stovepipes,” noting he would favor legislation to require any bills creating new programs to document whether similar ones already exist.

Holdren noted that Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget calls for $3.1 million, a 6 percent increase, for science, technology, engineering and math programs. Some 226 of these are spread across 13 agencies, and the White House expects to save $176 million by eliminating 78 and consolidating 38. 

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., zeroed in on the need to streamline the catfish inspection program, which involves the Agriculture Department, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. “Common sense reforms too often fall victim to business-as-usual politics, and this needs to stop in these challenging times,” she said.

Warner said he wants to pursue passage of the pending Digital Accountability and Transparency Act to streamline finance systems, noting the Pentagon alone has 200 financial systems. He also wants to relieve agencies of obligations to produce some 200 reports to Congress that, he says, “never get looked at.” 

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