Congress Has a Worse Track Record on Following Advice to Cut Waste Than Agencies Themselves

“Congress has been doing far worse than the executive branch in implementing the recommendations,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. “Congress has been doing far worse than the executive branch in implementing the recommendations,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. Molly Riley/AP

Federal agencies are making progress on addressing the duplication and overlap identified by independent auditors, but more than half of the total recommendations made since 2011 have not been fully addressed.

Lawmakers during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing Wednesday deplored agencies for failing to deal with the wasteful spending as identified by the Government Accountability Office, singling out the Internal Revenue Service, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and Defense Department. While agencies have saved $56 billion since 2011 by rooting out the waste GAO has highlighted -- and will reach an additional $69 billion in savings by 2025 through those actions already taken -- hundreds of GAO’s recommendations remain unaddressed.

GAO pointed a finger at Congress in particular for failing to implement the changes that required legislation, as the unresolved proposals laid disproportionately at lawmakers’ feet. Nearly half of outstanding issues required congressional action, according to GAO’s 2016 duplication report, despite consisting of just 16 percent of all recommendations. Agencies themselves at least partially addressed 86 percent of GAO’s proposals since 2011, the first year the auditors issued the report, though they have fully completed 43 percent of them.

“Congress has been doing far worse than the executive branch in implementing the recommendations,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., noted at the hearing.

GAO chief and Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, whose agency drew consistent praise from members of both parties, urged lawmakers to intervene on both agency-based and congressional waste reduction efforts.

“We don’t have any enforcement authority at GAO," Dodaro said. “We can’t compel people, but Congress can.”

For the committee’s chairman, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, more blame rested with federal workers themselves.

“Why do we have to come back year after year to discuss the same duplications?” Chaffetz asked. “All federal workers should consider it part of their job descriptions to prevent waste and should embrace the role of fiduciary stewards for the American public.”

Among 37 new recommendations to cut fragmentation, overlap or duplication were seven proposals related to the Defense Department and another seven related to health. The IRS took heat from lawmakers and the auditors alike for the $385 billion gap between taxes owes and those it actually collects, with GAO pointing to the agency maintaining nine separate programs for individuals to publicly report tax non-compliance. GAO noted in particular the IRS was doling out too few awards in its program to incentivize whistleblowers.

CMS was faulted duplicating subsidies for Medicaid participants transitioning to exchanges created by the 2010 Affordable Care Act, while GAO criticized the Pentagon for issues ranging from satellite procurement to excess ammunition.

Several lawmakers seemed to revel in their opportunities to highlight the wastefulness embedded in the federal bureaucracy.

“I hate to say it, but I enjoy reading your reports,” Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Ala., told Dodaro. “That probably says something about my personality.” Palmer’s colleague, Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., piled on, saying the IRS could not be trusted and the Veterans Affairs Department was an “absolute, disgusting mess.”

Agencies and Congress completed just 13 percent of the recommendations GAO made in its 2015 report, though the auditors acknowledged the process often takes more than a year. Cummings said the agency completion rate was especially impressive as their budgets have been slashed.

Still, Dodaro noted effective leadership could result in agencies better addressing waste. Asked by Rep. Rod Blum, R-Iowa, if the federal government had simply grown too large to root out duplication, the comptroller general said the solution could be found in good management.

“Management often gets a second-class status compared to policy orientations,” Dodaro said, “and that’s a fundamental problem that plagues a lot of these agencies.”

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