GAO’s High-Risk List Tackles Climate Change

This NOAA satellite image taken Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, shows superstorm Sandy slowly moving westward. This NOAA satellite image taken Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012, shows superstorm Sandy slowly moving westward. NOAA/AP

The much-disputed challenge of global climate change has made its way onto the list of high-risk federal agency performance areas, the Government Accountability Office announced on Thursday.

The latest in GAO’s biennial series of what a lawmaker calls the congressional overseer’s “to-do” list also for the first time included the threat of gaps in the nation’s weather satellite system. Two long-standing problem programs fell off the list: management of interagency contracting and the Internal Revenue Service’s modernization of its business systems.

“In the past two years, notable progress has been made in the vast majority of areas that remain on GAO's High Risk List,” said Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, who appeared at a press conference with top members of the Senate and House agency oversight committees. He attributed the improvements to combined efforts of the Congress “through oversight and legislation, the Office of Management and Budget through its leadership and coordination, and the agencies through their efforts to take corrective actions to address longstanding problems and implement related GAO recommendations.”

Thirty programs or broader areas remain on the list, among them the U.S. Postal Service, several Pentagon management systems, management of federal real property, fraud in Medicare and Medicaid, and management of federal oil and gas resources.

Dodaro praised agency work on the two areas newly removed from the list. Interagency contracting today, he said, is a far cry from the days “when there was no appropriate competition and interrogators in Iraq came from an information technology contractor.” And the IRS has made “slow, steady progress” since it introduced a new IT system in 1995 and made a “sound business case” that it is capable now of updating taxpayer records daily and has implemented 80 percent of industry best practices in the area.

“GAO will continue to monitor those two programs,” Dodaro added. “Just because you’re off the list, you’re not out of sight.”

Expressing concern about “potential gaps in polar-orbiting weather satellites,” Dodaro said the nation’s morning, noon and evening readings that produce three, four and seven-day forecasts could go silent in 2014 for as long as 53 months. He said the problem was not due to funding shortages at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- which has been battling Congress over tight budgets -- but due to “a lack of acquisition strategy and management.”

The addition of global warming to the risk list dominated Thursday’s discussion, however, in large part because the government, Dodaro said, “has exposure” as a significant property owner in vulnerable coastal areas, because it spends money annually on disaster relief, and because it administers the flood insurance and crop insurance programs. For scientific conclusions, GAO relied on the National Research Council and the 13-agency United States Global Change Research Program, Dodaro said. “We think there is enough scientific evidence, and given the government’s fiscal position, the timing is right,” he said.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, hailed the “landmark action by the nonpartisan experts at GAO” and called for a series of hearings. “When I saw the devastation from Hurricane Sandy, I was not sure the states are ready to do it,” he said. “We must get governors to speak honestly about where to get the money because they won’t raise taxes, but the money must come from somewhere. Even if you assume no climate change, we must be prepared.”

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., newly installed as chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, applaud GAO for not avoiding the controversial issue and “sending a clear signal the county must start activity to combat climate change.” He said lawmakers will follow what’s called the “80-20” rule and focus on the 80 percent of the climate change issue that most members agree on -- the 20 percent being disagreement over whether the change is accelerating and man-made.

Though all the lawmakers stressed bipartisan agreement on the goal of reducing government waste, House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said, “Whether climate change is increasing will be talked about for some time to come. But we can’t assume the budget is one thing and then add $50 billion in a supplemental bill every year.”

He said the federal and state governments have “underprepared for a generation” as if not anticipating that there will be floods and earthquakes. “It’s the responsibility of states and cities, who can’t just assume the federal government will come in,” Issa said. “We must be proactive in withholding federal funds” and monitor how locals are handling issues of insurance and safe rebuilding. “Our committee has the obligation to ask questions so the federal government either appropriates money or shifts it to states and localities. This isn’t controversial, it’s good government.”

Issa said he hopes “all members approach the budget issue in a way that is not all about where they are on climate change.”

Issa also said he was “concerned” about GAO’s decision to remove the IRS from the high-risk list, “given the 21 new taxes under the Affordable Care Act and other recent last-minute tax changes.”

All the lawmakers praised the GAO’s high-risk report as, in Carper’s phrase, a “to-do list” for oversight. Issa said he will take the issues “in order of dollar amounts, but will split them up for the whole of Congress, not just the Oversight Committee,” to handle. He plans to add to the hundreds of letters his panel has sent to agencies in recent years demanding information, and said he would like to add more employees to his staff, at GAO and at inspector general offices to address these issues. The positions, he said, would “pay far beyond their costs.”

Cummings agreed that the oversight panel plays a major role. “When I talk to people in the administration, they say one of their greatest fears is coming before our committee,” he said.

Sometimes just a letter to GAO will prompt agency action, added Carper. He said his Senate panel plans to focus more on government operations than it has in recent years. And he linked the GAO’s “to-do list” to strategies for achieving a new budget deal and job creation.

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