By Senator Tom Coburn, M.D.
Seven months ago, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office released a landmark report identifying at least $200 billion in wasteful, duplicative, and fraudulent government programs. At a time when we're bankrupt as a nation -- our debt now exceeds the size of our GDP and we have no way to finance our long-term liabilities -- the report was a treasure map of easy-to-find savings.
At its release, Republicans and Democrats both pledged to use the unbiased report to identify and pass real savings on to taxpayers. The report raised questions all sides saw as important. For instance, why do we have 47 ineffective job training programs instead of one that works? Why do have 20 agencies operating 56 financial literacy programs when the federal government has no credibility or authority to teach financial literacy? And, on the national security front, why do we have at least five departments, eight agencies and more than two dozen presidential appointees overseeing $6.48 billion related to bioterrorism when no one has a plan?
Senate Majority Leader Reid said the report, "[S]hows all kinds of redundancies and overlapping. Those are places we can cut money. Let's do it."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi agreed. "Again, we all agree we have to get rid of waste, fraud, abuse, duplication, obsolescence, and the rest," Pelosi said. "The GAO has given us a blueprint for that, and we subscribe to that. We all agree that we must reduce the deficit, and the fiscal commission has given us a road map for that. We can agree or disagree with some of it; but the fact is it gives us a blueprint for how to go forward, and we should take heed of that."
Yet, in the last seven months, Congress has failed to send a single cut identified by GAO to the president's desk. Even worse, instead of cutting the spending identified by GAO, the Senate Appropriations Committee is now proposing to slash funding for GAO itself.
In the legislative branch appropriations bill for fiscal year 2012, GAO is singled out for excessively deep cuts and new, overly burdensome mandates that will consume the agency's limited resources to no apparent benefit.
The bill calls for GAO's budget to be cut by 7.6 percent, which represents more than ten percent of the entire reduction proposed within legislative branch spending. Cuts to GAO's budget are greater than cuts proposed for other line items in the bill, including the allowances for the majority and minority leaders (6.01 percent cut), the Appropriations Committee (6 percent cut), the Congressional Research Service (4.68 percent cut), and senators' official personnel and office expenses (3.17 percent cut).
The Appropriations Committee also proposes an unprecedented and apparently punitive reporting requirement for GAO. The committee report "directs the GAO to add a cost analysis to every report requested by a member or a committee, including but not limited to the number [of full time employees] that were associated with the production of the report, the number of hours required to produce the report, associated travel expenses, and the number of reports previously conducted on the particular issue."
This information will do nothing to help us cut spending and will further consume GAO's dwindling resources without providing any obvious benefit. Furthermore, this mandate is not placed on any other legislative branch entity that prepares reports or other documents, such as the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office, the Secretary of the Senate, the Clerk of the House, or any House or Senate Committees.
At a time when we are running a $15 trillion debt and are borrowing $4.5 billion a day to keep government open and our military deployed, every agency needs to tighten its belt. Yet, the Appropriations Committee proposal looks like mismanagement at best and pay back at worse.
The fact is while GAO has stepped up its efforts to meet congressional demands, the oversight conducted by Congress itself has declined dramatically. Congressional committees held 318 fewer hearings in the 111th Congress than in the 110th Congress. During the height of the earmark era, the number of earmark requests outnumbered oversight hearings by a factor of 1,000 to 1. Finally, Congress has not passed a budget in more than two years -- 878 days -- and is governing by continuing resolutions and omnibus spending bills.
At a time when we need serious oversight to make smart cuts, the Appropriations Committee itself admits its proposal will hurt GAO's ability to do oversight. The committee report concedes "it is evident that many of the services provided by the GAO will be curtailed due to reductions in staff and resources."
The logic of the committee's proposal is tough to decipher. Yet, it is clear shooting the messenger (GAO) won't make the message go away. And the message coming from our citizens and the international financial community is this: if we want our economy to survive and recover we need live within our means. GAO's recommendations are the place to start cutting, not GAO itself.