Major GAO report finds billions in taxpayer savings

Posted March 02, 2011, at 5:04 a.m.
Sen. Tom Coburn
Sen. Tom Coburn

WASHINGTON – With Congress and the White House set to debate the merits of huge spending cuts, federal auditors have identified hundreds of overlapping government offices and programs that if merged or eliminated could save taxpayers billions of dollars.

The U.S. government has more than 100 programs dealing with surface transportation issues, for example, 82 that monitor teacher quality, 80 for economic development, 56 for “financial literacy,” 20 offices or programs devoted to homelessness and 17 grant programs for disaster preparedness, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Tuesday. Among other redundancies, 15 agencies or offices handle food safety, and five agencies are working to ensure that the federal government uses less gasoline.

“Reducing or eliminating duplication, overlap, or fragmentation could potentially save billions of taxpayer dollars annually and help agencies provide more efficient and effective services,” the GAO said.

The study, ordered last year as part of legislation raising the federal debt limit, quickly earned the attention of lawmakers eager to identify potential spending cuts.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who sponsored the amendment requiring the report’s publication, has said Congress and the executive branch are equally to blame for failing to control spending. Coburn has been an outspoken critic of government waste.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, called the report “a battle plan for the ongoing war against wasteful federal spending.”

“The weak economy and an unsupportable debt demand that we find cost savings wherever we can,” Lieberman said. “This report points us in the right direction.”

Much of the GAO report focuses on redundancies at the Pentagon, where leaders already are pushing for budget cuts. Each military service maintains separate buildings, computers and personnel to address the health concerns of service members and veterans, but they could be merged, the report said.

A 2006 Defense Department study recommended a unified medical command, but nothing came of it. The idea could have saved taxpayers between $281 million and $460 million, the GAO said. Consolidating the Pentagon’s contract acquisition offices, military intelligence operations and efforts to track improvised explosive devices could save tens of billions more, it said.

Much of the Obama administration’s economic stimulus program has relied on the distribution of federal highway construction dollars, but the government’s approach remains mired in the 1950s, auditors said. Federal transportation involves more than 6,000 workers at five agencies within the Transportation Department, running about 100 funding streams for highways, transit systems, rail and safety, the report said. The overlap costs an estimated $58 billion annually.

Presidents since Harry Truman have attempted to eliminate redundancies only to bump up against powerful special interest groups and congressional committees wary of reductions to the programs they oversee.

“It is a situation in which small, narrowly based groups who have what they want and are afraid of losing it inevitably have proven stronger than large groups with more or less amorphous and less single-minded attitudes,” Caspar Weinberger, President Richard Nixon’s budget director, wrote in 1978 as he recalled a six-month initiative that merged the government’s domestic functions into a handful of “super-departments.”

President Barack Obama, a former senator and close colleague of Coburn, spoke during his presidential campaign about the need to make the government work better.

“The president has made it a priority to reform government and make it more effective and efficient for the American people, which is why his budget reflects a commitment to streamlining government and saving taxpayer dollars,” White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage said Tuesday in response to the report.

Upon taking office, Obama quickly appointed a chief performance officer, a new position meant to tackle government organizational issues.

Jeffrey Zients, who holds the position, will lead Obama’s efforts to overhaul federal trade issues and is also leading efforts to reduce the government’s real estate portfolio. His colleagues Aneesh Chopra, the government’s chief technology officer, and Vivek Kundra, its chief information officer, are working to consolidate 2,100 data centers used by federal agencies.

That is a good idea, according to GAO. The government used just 432 data centers in 1998, and a consolidation could save taxpayers up to $200 billion in the next decade.

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