The Duplication Refrain

The duplication refrain is crucial in the rhetoric of cutting back government.

Duplication and overlap, fraud, waste and abuse: You've heard these words again and again in the bedrock critique of modern government at the federal level. The refrain no doubt contributed to the finding last year, in a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, that only 22 percent of Americans trust the federal government in Washington "almost always or most of the time."

Little things count. Duplication and overlap and fraud symbolize Washington's profligate ways, even if curing them altogether would not contribute much to solving the nation's fiscal mess.

So it is that the Government Accountability Office has a best-seller on its hands with a March report titled "Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs, Save Tax Dollars and Enhance Revenue." Within a month of its release, the 340-page document had been downloaded more than 100,000 times, according to GAO Chief Operating Officer Patricia A. Dalton, making it four times as popular as any other report the watchdog agency has published. Already several congressional hearings have centered on its findings. And no wonder: The report's treasure-trove of stuff is enough to make a citizen cringe.

"Waste and duplication" were among the first words House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., uttered in early April as he described his long-range fiscal plan. By Ryan's estimate, cutting duplication would save $100 billion, just pennies in a 10-year program to cut spending by $5.8 trillion, but important to the rhetoric of those who would shrink the public sector.

GAO's report results from a yearlong effort by agency staff to bring together and summarize the conclusions of many of their investigations. It gains considerable force both by reference to repetitive recommendations for reforms over the years and by the breadth of its analysis, covering hundreds of programs in 34 topical areas and 47 other cost-saving and revenue-enhancing opportunities. Some examples:

Fifteen federal agencies administer at least 30 food safety laws. Different agencies control various aspects of seafood and egg screening, for example-and there is no governmentwide performance plan for food safety at a time when risks to the public are rising.

Concern about quality of education has spawned no fewer than 82 distinct programs to help improve teacher quality, costing more than $4 billion a year. The Education Department now is proposing to consolidate some of this teacher training cornucopia.

The Agriculture Department and other agencies spend upwards of $63 billion on 18 domestic food and nutrition programs that "show signs of overlap and inefficient use of resources," GAO says.

The Transportation Department has scores of surface transportation programs costing nearly $60 billion a year and badly needing consolidation.

Seven federal agencies run some two dozen programs to help reduce homelessness. There's now an interagency council on the topic, and a federal strategic plan to reduce homelessness, but GAO says local service providers still chafe at lack of federal coordination.

"Where does the blame lie?" former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., asked lawmakers during a March 3 hearing on the GAO report. Davis, now director of federal government affairs at Deloitte & Touche LLP, suggested Congress should "begin by looking squarely in the mirror . . . We can blame the bureaucracy, but in many ways Congress created the many-headed monster we bemoan in an attempt to protect its jurisdictional prerogatives."

Pending legislation to rewrite major education, employment and training, and surface transportation laws offer opportunities to pare away some of the duplication and overlap. According to Davis, such efforts could go hand in hand with agency reorganization of a kind that's now under study at the Office of Management and Budget. "Absolutely, it's the best time," he says. "If a company looks to drive costs out of the business, it will need to reorganize."

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