For more than a decade, the Government Accountability Office has been warning that the federal government is on an unsustainable fiscal path.
In March of 2020, for example, days before the pandemic was declared, Comptroller General Gene Dodaro warned Congress that “interest on the debt is the fastest growing element of federal spending” and that “debt that grows faster than the economy.”
Of course, these fiscal challenges only grew over the past three years as Congress spent trillions on COVID relief programs and the American Rescue Plan. This February, the Congressional Budget Office published a sobering analysis of the budget and economic outlook, projecting ballooning debt, a doubling of the federal deficit, and annual interest payments growing by nearly $1 trillion over the next decade.
If the government’s fiscal path was unsustainable a decade ago, it may be more accurately described as reckless today. Absent change, future Congresses and administrations may be forced with a decade to choose either massive tax increases, large entitlement cuts, or a slashing of the discretionary and defense budgets.
Improving the federal government’s long-term fiscal problems will require difficult decisions and tough compromises for both parties on Capitol Hill, which may prove unlikely in the highly polarized Congress ahead of a presidential election.
But there are ways that Congress and its nonpartisan watchdog agency can work together to trim unnecessary spending from the federal budget by enacting reforms that should have bipartisan support.
In recent testimony submitted to the House Legislative Branch Appropriations Committee, I highlighted several opportunities for reform to achieve cost savings. In similar testimonies in the past, Zach Graves and I have recommended that Congress require GAO to tell lawmakers how much the government could save if agencies enacted its open reform recommendations. Congress has now done this by enacting the Improving Government for America’s Taxpayers Act in the FY2023 NDAA and by including language in the explanatory statement accompanying the FY2023 omnibus bill requiring this reporting.
Comptroller General Dodaro recently told Congress that “an additional tens of billions of dollars [in savings] could be achieved if agencies and Congress addressed more of our recommendations.” The agency is due to report those cost savings estimates to Congress and the public in June.
Now, Congress and GAO should take additional steps to leverage nonpartisan oversight to achieve taxpayer savings by taking five actions that could begin to address the nation’s fiscal challenges:
- Congress should fully fund GAO’s budget request for FY2024, since the watchdog provides a high return on investment (ROI) of taxpayer savings.
- Congress should require GAO to set targeted completion dates for its open and new recommendations, to encourage agencies to implement them in a timely manner.
- Congress should answer the Comptroller General’s recommendation to establish a new center within GAO to conduct permanent oversight of improper payments and fraud, since federal agencies spent $274 billion improperly in 2022. With its Science Technology Assessment and Analytics team, GAO is well positioned to strengthen the federal government’s payment integrity activities.
- Congress should conduct oversight of GAO’s current operational status. We’ve heard that very few of GAO’s staff are working in person, with less than 10 percent regularly showing up as of late 2022. With the pandemic essentially over, the watchdog agency could presumably increase its ROI by having its workforce back in the office. (GAO’s ROI was down in 2022 to $74 dollars saved for each dollar provided by Congress, compared to its five-year average of $145 for every $1.)
- Congress should explore better ways for Congress and GAO to work together, including by establishing an in-person office for GAO within the Capitol Complex and by increasing the number of GAO employees detailed to congressional committees. Increasing collaborations between Congress and GAO will be even more useful once the Comptroller General reports to Congress in June on what the government could save by enacting open recommendations.
It’s helpful that the Comptroller General and the trusted nonpartisan watchdogs at GAO continue to remind Congress that the federal government’s current fiscal path is unsustainable. But these warnings would be more impactful if Congress and GAO took additional initiative to achieve cost savings by leveraging GAO’s nonpartisan oversight to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse in the federal budget.