Congress’ watchdog released its seventh annual inventory of duplicative or fragmented programs on Wednesday with a nod toward the reorganization and efficiency effort announced two weeks ago by the Trump White House.
The Government Accountability Office report updating the status of hundreds of past GAO recommendations for cost savings “will be useful as agencies go through the process of streamlining and reorganizing,” Comptroller General Gene Dodaro told a Senate panel. The GAO chief said he had informed White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney that he was sending a letter to all agency heads recommending that they assign “priority attention” to the 29 newly highlighted areas discussed in the 154-page report on “where federal programs or activities are fragmented, overlapping or duplicative.”
The additions included improper payments, refundable tax credits, government purchase cards, hiring, Veterans Affairs medical facility construction, and Defense Department advertising and incentive pay.
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“Most savings to date have come from Congress taking action,” Dodaro told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The review of 645 actions in 249 areas from the past seven years showed that 51 percent have been implemented, 31 percent partially implemented and 18 percent not implemented, he said. The total savings is $75 billion plus another $61 billion “in the pipeline,” Dodaro added.
Wednesday’s report presented 79 new actions that Congress or executive agencies could take.
The Defense Department showed the most unaddressed recommendations, followed by Health and Human Services and the Internal Revenue Service. Some outstanding proposals address multiple agencies. For example, the “National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Food and Nutrition Service, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have not established guidance and a formal process to ensure their grant management staff review applications for potential duplication and overlap among grants in their agencies before awarding competitive grants and cooperative agreements,” GAO wrote.
Panel chairman Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., cited the exploding national debt as a reason for his hearing, and bemoaned the fact that the government’s improper payment rate in various tax credits “is still at 20 percent and stuck there.” He commended GAO for achieving a 20-1 return on investment ratio for taxpayers through its ongoing work.
Ranking member Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., agreed with Johnson that Congress should put together a grab-bag bill to implement recommendations in such areas as improper payments. Speaking to a university chancellor at the witness table, she said the National Institutes of Health and the National Academy of Science “should agree on one standard of reporting” on use of federal grant dollars to save paperwork.
Addressing delays in agency hiring, Dodaro said his auditors counted 105 different authorities, only 20 of which are used for 90 percent of hires. The Office of Personnel Management “is not showing enough leadership” and hasn’t measured the different offices’ effectiveness, he said. “It’s a cultural problem since most offices are rules-based—trying to avoid doing something wrong,” he added. “They need to be more proactive. I have no problems hiring at GAO.”
Another area examined in the report and at the hearing was the multi-agency Do Not Pay system, designed to curb improper payments to deceased individuals using the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File. Access to that file, however, is limited by legal and privacy considerations, so Congress “should consider amending the Social Security Act to explicitly allow the Social Security Administration to share its full death file through the system,” GAO said.
Dodaro, when questioned by Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., explicitly endorsed his “Taxpayer Right to Know” act, a transparency bill to require agencies to post program costs and evaluations online that has passed the House but is stalled in the Senate. “It will make a huge difference in better accountability for agencies that is severely lacking,” he said.
The IRS came under scrutiny for failing to prevent abuse of the earned income tax credit. In one instance cited by Johnson, 24,000 claims for the credit were sent from a single home address, costing the Treasury $46 million. Dodoro said Congress could give the IRS more authority in areas such as certifying tax return preparers and lowering the small business employee threshold to require more to file returns electronically.
The tax agency “is making progress, moving in the right direction,” said J. Russell George, Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration. He said the improper payments had come down from $20 billion to $14 billion, but “I don’t want to let the IRS completely off the hook,” he added. “They haven’t used every avenue available,” including checking with other agency databases to improve compliance through third-party verification.
George also appeared to agree with McCaskill’s complaint that budget cuts have harmed the IRS’ ability to conduct enforcement.
Rebecca Blank, the former deputy secretary and acting secretary of Commerce now chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, complained that her research scientists are “overregulated” by as many as 43 federal agencies with “multiple interpretations” of how grant reporting should be done, resulting in duplicative and unnecessary requests for information, she said. “It’s impeding research” and required her administrators to add dozens of full-time positions while researchers can spend as much as 42 percent of their days on paperwork.
One team of Alzheimer researchers spent a year negotiating with multiple federal agencies for clarity on reporting formats and finally gave up on the project, she said. “I’m not saying do away with all regulations, but we need to be smart about how implement them.”
Correction: The original version of the story said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., bemoaned improper payments in Medicare and Medicaid. He was referring to the error rate for several types of tax credits.