GAO adds three items to high-risk list, removes air traffic control project

The Government Accountability Office added three issues to its most recent inventory of significant management challenges, released on Thursday. The only item to be removed from the biennial high-risk list was the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control modernization project.

The list, released at the start of every new Congress, is a catalog of federal programs, policies and operations vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement or in need of sweeping transformation. The outdated financial regulatory system, Food and Drug Administration oversight of medical products and the Environmental Protection Agency's processes for assessing and controlling toxic chemicals were new to the 2009 list. The additions brought the number of high-risk issues to 30.

Gene Dodaro, acting comptroller general, said during a press conference with top lawmakers on Thursday that FAA has made substantial progress in addressing the root causes of past problems with the air traffic control modernization program, which included cost overruns, schedule delays and performance shortfalls. The agency's commitment to improving the program has allowed it to deploy new systems nationwide and rein in cost overruns, he said.

"We remain watchful as they're about to launch into the next-generation air traffic control system, where they'll move to a satellite-based system from a radar-based ground system," Dodaro said. "Just because they're off the list doesn't mean they're out of GAO's [sight]."

The financial regulatory system concerned lawmakers from key government oversight committees the most out of the new high-risk areas. Dodaro said the system was "outdated, fragmented and ill-suited to meet our needs in the 21st century." All six lawmakers attending the press conference pledged to investigate how to reform it.

The members of Congress and senators, each of whom has focused on the federal government for years, said they also will continue to address long-standing issues such as contract management and business transformation at the Defense Department.

Defense, by far the largest federal agency in personnel and spending, continued to dominate the high-risk list. The department is directly responsible for eight items on the list and shares responsibility for seven more.

"The military's lack of progress is of growing concern to GAO," Dodaro said.

Sens. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, said the Homeland Security Department's presence on the list also is worrisome. Lieberman called it distressing but not unexpected.

"We're acutely aware of the department's progress over the years of its existence, as short as they are compared to other agencies," Lieberman said. "But we're also aware of its shortcomings, and we have put its continued improvement at the top of our to-do list."

Collins said it is obvious much work needs to be done and the high-risk list will act as a guidebook for lawmakers in addressing government's most pressing challenges. The new leaders of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee -- Reps. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., and Darrell Issa, R-Calif. -- said the list will shape their agenda as well.

Towns and Issa sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates requesting a meeting to discuss the Defense-related areas tagged by GAO. Towns also committed to setting meetings with other Cabinet secretaries about their high-risk programs, and emphasized the committee's bipartisan commitment to tackling the challenges.

"The waistline of government is not about the size of the dollars," Issa said. "It's about the size of the dollars wasted. The chairman and I intend to work on a completely seamless basis to publish an ongoing list of where we have reduced that waste and where it is still going on."

The lawmakers and acting comptroller general acknowledged the tremendous amount of work to be done, but said the ball has started to roll toward improving these programs.

"We're particularly pleased [that] in the past two years … agencies, with [the Office of Management and Budget's] support and encouragement, have now developed better plans to address some of these areas and we're hoping that will lay the foundation for further progress," Dodaro said.

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