But Congress’s watchdog has the potential to do more to make government work better
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its annual Performance and Accountability report this week. The Comptroller General reported that the Congressional Watchdog agency’s work resulted in “about $66.2 billion in financial benefits—a return of about $93 for every dollar invested in GAO.” Over the past 5 years, GAO’s average ROI has been $158 to $1.
Digging into the 150-page report, GAO pointed to several examples of how its work saved taxpayer dollars. The watchdogs found $4 billion in unused funds in an Energy Department loan program that Congress could rescind. GAO’s work since 2010 recommending that federal agencies consolidate data centers resulted in $5.5 billion in savings.
GAO provided a summary of how it achieved the majority of its $66 billion in taxpayer savings:
“More than half of our financial benefits for this year were in the health care (about $37 billion) and defense (about $10 billion) areas. Among our health care-related accomplishments were revising spending limits for Medicaid demonstration projects ($29.5 billion) and establishing site-neutral payments under Medicare ($2.8 billion). Our defense-related accomplishments included reducing the Navy’s appropriation for a Virginia Class submarine to avoid workflow disruptions at shipyards potentially leading to construction inefficiencies ($2.8 billion) and reducing DOD’s operation and maintenance appropriation for unused funds ($1.9 billion) and appropriation for bulk fuel because costs were lower than anticipated ($1.7 billion).”
These results are consistent with my review of non-public data from GAO that show that work related to the Defense and Health and Human Services departments resulted in the most cost savings between 2002 and 2019.
Reviewing GAO’s annual estimate of how its work results in taxpayer savings leads to two important questions for Congress:
- How much more savings and government improvements would be achieved if GAO received additional government funding?
- How can Congress and GAO hold agencies accountable and answer the watchdog’s recommendations in a timely manner?
In September testimony before the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress, Lincoln’s Zach Graves urged Congress to fully fund the Comptroller General’s budget request.
“Based on the agency’s recent ROI estimates, additional funding for GAO could yield as much as $100 in savings for each additional dollar appropriated, while giving the agency flexibility to make new investments in information technology and its Innovation Lab, which has the potential to modernize government oversight and significantly improve federal agency operations.”
For FY2022, GAO requested $744 million in appropriations, or an increase of $83 million over last year’s funding. Based on the trend over the past 5-years, fully-funding this increase could achieve $13 billion in savings. While it’s not clear that every marginal dollar will result in $158 in taxpayer savings, Congress should have confidence that fully-funding GAO would result in significant government improvements.
On the second question, Congress would be wise to explore ways to help GAO improve the timeliness of agencies’ responses to their nonpartisan recommendations.
GAO’s latest report shows that its 4-year implementation rate for its recommendations was 76% last year -- slightly lower than their 80% target. In other words, 3 out of 4 of the watchdog’s recommendations issued in FY2017 have now been addressed.
As of today, GAO reports that there are currently 4,666 open recommendations. Congress should consider new ways to require agencies to act on GAO’s nonpartisan work. A good starting point would be to know just how much federal agencies could save by answering GAO’s recommendations. As Zach and I have argued, Congress should require the Comptroller General to provide annual estimates of the cost of these open recommendations by agency. Thanks to language in the House Appropriations committee report for the legislative branch funding bill, Congress may soon have such an estimate.
With Congress currently debating trillion dollar spending bills, it may be easy to overlook the work of a 3,200 agency with a budget of less than a billion dollars. But GAO’s nonpartisan work remains one of the few areas where lawmakers across the political spectrum can find common ground for bipartisan reforms to make government work better and to begin to address the nation’s fiscal challenges.
Fully funding GAO and leveraging its nonpartisan oversight should be a priority for Congress in 2022 and beyond.