By Rep. Jackie Speier and Rep. Mike Coffman
There was nothing funny about the 2010 General Services Administration conference in Las Vegas that featured a clown, a mind reader and an overall taxpayer price tag of $820,000. Billed as a team-building exercise complete with an elaborate reception, the event has become another sad chapter on wasteful federal government spending.
Shocking examples from inspectors general reveal that:
The Department of Defense overpays contractors more than $1 billion every year. As of June 30, 2009, contractors were indebted to DOD for $3.1 billion in unrecovered overpayments.
Poor management and oversight resulted in $1 billion being wasted on the Department of Homeland Security's Secure Border Initiative Network.
Each year, the Department of Agriculture pays $5 billion to owners of farmland who once produced subsidized crops but no longer do.
Our nation cannot afford wasteful government expenditures of any amount. Across-the-board cuts to federal spending and other deficit-reduction strategies are shrinking critical safety net programs, lifesaving medical research and even services to our veterans. Members of both parties must work together to protect federal funds from waste, fraud and abuse.
This week, we are launching the bipartisan Congressional Watchdog Caucus to bolster our commitment to oversight and to support our colleagues with the tools and resources needed to identify wasteful spending or ineffective governance.
There are specific people ready to help Congress do its job better -- we need to listen to them. For example, inspectors general conduct independent and objective audits, investigations and inspections of federal agencies and programs to root out waste, fraud and abuse. The government has more than 70 IGs who make thousands of cost-saving recommendations every year, but too often their recommendation go unnoticed or ignored. Right now, there are an estimated 16,906 open and unimplemented IG recommendations that could save us $67 billion a year -- that's only $18 billion less than the across-the-board spending cuts that went into effect March 1.
Government employees and contractors are our eyes and ears on the frontlines; they can also help expose wrongdoing by managers and leadership. In fact, over the past four years, whistleblowers helped the U.S. government recover $13.3 billion. Since the False Claims Act was updated in 1986, the Department of Justice has recovered $24.2 billion through whistleblower lawsuits. We need to give whistleblowers a safe place to report suspected violations and investigate credible reports.
The goal of the Watchdog Caucus is to bring attention to ways we can save taxpayers money before it is misspent and impossible to recover.
The independent, nonpartisan agency charged with investigating government programs, the Government Accountability Office, recently released its annual list of the 30 programs most vulnerable to waste, fraud and abuse. High-risk areas include abuses of Medicare funds through self-referral, significant weaknesses in the Defense Department's ability to oversee its acquisition of weapons and services, and weaknesses in the government's ability to protect public health through a fragmented food safety system. GAO's list is instructive in its prioritization for action. Through the Watchdog Caucus, we want to create a vocal constituency for closing loopholes and increasing accountability. Our mission is to turn the high-risk list into a low-risk list.
Establishing the Watchdog Caucus is only the first step to get control of the abuses exposed by government watchdogs and to tap the expertise of experienced investigators. Moving forward, we want to be champions of whistleblowers and a constituency for good government.
More important, we want to help members and their staff conduct good oversight and incorporate the lessons learned from other members. We want to create a network of offices dedicated to watching taxpayer dollars.
We want to create user-friendly information for people who want to know about their government and what they can do to prevent the misuse of public money.
Waste, fraud and abuse have persisted through Democratic and Republican administrations. It is important that we seek bipartisan solutions. Oversight is all about responsible governance, not about scoring political points or shaming public officials.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) serves on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, where she is ranking member on the Energy Policy, Health Care and Entitlements Subcommittee. Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) is chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the Veterans' Affairs Committee.