Freshman Missouri senator sets out to tackle government waste

The balloons from her victory party had barely been cleared before Missouri's Democratic senator-elect, Claire McCaskill, started talking about government audits.

"I've been able to arm-wrestle some bureaucracies," McCaskill told the Kansas City Star on Nov. 9. "I know a lot about federal programs. I know how badly they behave. It's not very sexy, but . . . the [Government Accountability Office] is going to love me as a senator. My office is actually going to read their audits."

McCaskill's ambition to become the GAO senator -- to get "GAO's products to permeate everything I do in my job as a senator" -- is coming true with her seats on both the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and Armed Services committees.

Before coming to Washington, McCaskill was the state auditor in Missouri, where even some Republicans sang her praises. Known for her no-nonsense approach, she won plaudits for shifting the focus of audits from checking balance sheets to examining the efficiency of government programs.

In her first appearance at a Governmental Affairs hearing, McCaskill asked Sept. 11 commission members about wasteful spending and referenced two of her office's audits of Homeland Security grants. She described them simply: "What I found in those audits was everyone wanted to do the right thing but had no idea how to do it quickly, sufficiently or be trained appropriately."

McCaskill first tasted the sweet success of federal audits as Jackson County prosecutor in 1993. After a large flood hit Kansas City, the Agriculture Department distributed about $5.5 million in food stamps.

"I drove by an office that had been set up to give out food stamps," she says. "I noticed the line had stretched several blocks. So I just kind of sent an investigator from my office down there to ask them questions."

The investigator discovered that, indeed, many of the people in line weren't actually harmed by the flood. So she scheduled a news conference to announce that anyone who immediately returned illegal food stamps would not be prosecuted. She recovered about $250,000 worth of stamps and successfully prosecuted 27 people on fraud charges.

"A few days later, I'm driving my car somewhere, and my office calls and says there's someone here from the federal government who wants to talk to you," McCaskill recalls. "I'm sort of walking with a strut, thinking they are going to congratulate me. Instead, they were there to grill me."

The officials, from the Agriculture Department, demanded to know what authority she had to hold the news conference and prosecute violators. "It was a good example of sometimes common sense is the best thing," McCaskill says. The officials never reprimanded her.

As senator, agency efficiency is "the most important priority I have: making government work for less money," McCaskill says. The first way she'll do that, she says, is to read the GAO reports gathering dust around Capitol Hill.

Agencies, beware. Overlooked GAO reports such as "BLM's Program for Issuing Individual Indian Allotments on Public Lands Is No Longer Viable" and "Incidents at DoD Mail Facilities Exposed Problems That Require Further Actions" could make a comeback.

"I have frustrations as an auditor, and I want to make sure I use those experiences to make me a stronger senator," McCaskill says. "You do really good work, and then the policymakers, the legislative branch and the executive branch don't respond to the audit. An audit that is ignored is a huge waste of taxpayer money."

In that respect, she and Comptroller General David M. Walker might become bosom buddies. In mid-November, on one of her first trips to Washington, McCaskill set up a meeting with the GAO chief. She told Walker how important his audits would be to her and asked him to spread the word among his auditors that her office is hiring.

But McCaskill isn't blinded by her admiration for GAO's work. "When I'm doing committee work with any federal agency, I want to be aware of the last audits that are done on that agency," she says. "And even if GAO says they've been implemented, I want to double-check." She calls it "checking the checkers."

McCaskill isn't the first state auditor to join the Senate. Former Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., had the post in his state from 1991 to 1994, and Missouri's John Ashcroft was state auditor from 1973 to 1975 before becoming a senator and then attorney general. Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey was state auditor from 1996 to 2004.

As Missouri's auditor, McCaskill rapped on staffing standards at nursing homes and on interoperability problems among almost 50 percent of homeland security response teams. She became familiar with privatizing efforts, too. One audit showed the Missouri Revenue Department failed to conduct "a fair, open and competitive environment for all potential bidders" on government property.

Dan Schuette, director for the environmental quality division at the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, also was the subject of a McCaskill audit. The investigation found that Schuette's office improperly used $21,522 in state funds to pay for a lobbyist and spent more than $10,000 on unnecessary artwork, among other problems.

Like the USDA officials from 1993, Schuette also felt that McCaskill was too aggressive. The audit included "some recommendations that we didn't agree with," Schuette says. "From a perspective of whether they had authority to do X, Y and Z, we felt maybe the audit was beyond" the office's purview.

But despite McCaskill's public reprimand, Schuette says her office was thorough and fair. "They came in with an idea in mind of how the process should work, and then after discussion they were open-minded to saying, 'Oh yeah, maybe we didn't quite nail that on the head,' " and changed direction, Schuette says.

McCaskill says she's also open about what she will pursue in the area of agency oversight. She lists the overuse of consultants, insufficient information sharing among agencies and profiteering on Iraq and Hurricane Katrina contracts as possibilities.

On the one-year anniversary of Katrina, in the midst of her senatorial campaign, McCaskill blogged on her Web site about agency management.

"The reconstruction efforts over the past year have been characterized by wasteful spending and contracts that were given out with little or no competitive bidding, meaning that the taxpayers and victims of Katrina lose out," McCaskill wrote. "If we've learned one thing from this catastrophe, it's that Washington is sorely lacking in accountability . . . . As Missouri's auditor, I have always stood up against wasteful government spending. When I go to Washington, I will not be afraid to speak out against the incompetence and insensitivity that we witnessed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina."

But it remains to be seen whether, with a razor-thin Democratic victory to protect in six years, McCaskill will conduct nitty-gritty, even boring, oversight beyond the popular issues of Iraq and Katrina.

McCaskill insists she's not in it for the headlines.

"Perhaps [agency oversight] doesn't get the attention it deserves because it is not the sexiest issue on the Hill," McCaskill says. "This is good old bread-and-butter stuff, while there's all sorts of crème brûlée. I hope I can bring other senators along in this regard."

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