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Why Congress Must Push its Watchdog to Achieve Taxpayer Savings

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Why Congress Must Push its Watchdog to Achieve Taxpayer Savings

September 29, 2023

The expected government shutdown is the latest evidence that the polarized Congress is unwilling to negotiate on needed fiscal reforms to address the growing national debt and ongoing deficit spending. But a House subcommittee hearing this week provided a glimmer of hope that some lawmakers are focused on finding areas of agreement to achieve substantial taxpayer savings.

On Wednesday, the Committee on House Administration’s Modernization Subcommittee held a hearing on the U.S. Government Accountability Office. I had the honor of testifying and sharing my recommendations, which focused on how Congress can better leverage GAO’s nonpartisan oversight to improve government efficiency.

Since 2020, I have been analyzing the congressional watchdog agency’s impact. My research has highlighted GAO’s impressive track record, including their estimated $1.3 trillion in financial benefits accomplished since 2002. For this reason, I’ve submitted written testimony to congressional appropriations committees recommending funding increases for the watchdog agency for the past four years.

But I’ve also identified cost savings that have been left on the table by Congress and federal agencies being slow to act on GAO’s nonpartisan reform recommendations. GAO reports that 5,000 recommendations remain unimplemented and that more than a quarter have been unanswered for more than four years.

Last Congress, the House Modernization Committee passed two bipartisan recommendations intended to help Congress work better with GAO to implement these good-government reforms. A bill sponsored by Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) and Rep. William Timmons (R-SC) became law as part of the annual defense bill in December, which created new reporting requirements for GAO aimed at achieving more cost savings. Congress also created another reporting requirement for GAO as part of the omnibus that passed in December to help Congress understand what tax dollars are being wasted by failing to enact GAO’s recommendations.

Over the summer, GAO issued two reports that partly answered these questions, but that in my opinion did not go far enough in telling Congress what could be saved if specific open recommendations were implemented. In an op-ed for The Hill, I argued that these reports were an example of the congressional watchdog being unwilling to bark.

In a response, Comptroller General Gene Dodaro said that my article “misses the big picture and is flat out wrong.” He described my position that the new reporting requirements were intended to provide Congress with a roadmap to achieve cost savings as erroneous. The Comptroller General pointed to GAO’s ongoing work answering a congressional mandate from 2010 for GAO to study duplication across federal agencies as an example of GAO’s work to help Congress identify and achieve opportunities for cost savings.

But at Wednesday’s hearing, it became clear that Congress—including Representative Kilmer, who sponsored the new law—was indeed looking for a more useful response from GAO.

In my testimony, I offered several recommendations for how Congress can help the hardworking people at GAO have a greater impact, including fully answering the new law, setting deadlines of future recommendations, and partnering with GAO to increase oversight of the federal government’s $247 billion misspending problem.

In my discussion with Chairwoman Stephanie Bice (R-OK) during the hearing, I urged Congress to learn from my former boss Senator Tom Coburn’s experience working with GAO to achieve more cost savings. Before Congress established its annual reporting requirement for GAO to study duplication and waste across federal agencies and programs, former Senator Coburn asked GAO to do this work. But they didn’t want to do it, according to former staffers who were working for the Oklahoma lawmaker at the time.

As a result, Dr. Coburn passed an amendment to legislation raising the debt ceiling in 2010 mandating GAO to do the work. Mr. Dodaro would later describe Coburn’s mandate as “the gift that keeps on giving.” GAO estimates that since 2011, its work in response to Coburn’s mandate has saved $600 billion. Substantial and achievable cost savings would presumably have been left on the table if Coburn had not forced GAO to do the work.

If we turn to GAO’s annual return on investment, GAO reported saving about $92 for each dollar it received from Congress between 2002 and 2010. In the 12 years following Coburn’s amendment, GAO’s annual ROI increased to $125-to-$1 from 2011 to 2022. (Note: Even if we remove FY2019 from this trend analysis, since GAO reported an unusually large ROI of $338-to-$1 that year, GAO’s ROI is still $106-to-$1 since 2011, or about 15 percent higher than its ROI from 2002 to 2010.)

The lesson is that increasing GAO’s return on investment and achieving substantial cost savings will require Congress pressing its watchdog to do the work that Congress needs. In the future, the next Comptroller General could describe new reporting requirements backed by the modernization lawmakers as the key to raising GAO’s ROI to an even higher level for the next decade.

An encouraging takeaway from the hearing is that Chairwoman Bice expressed interest in reauthorizing GAO. As I explained in my testimony, reauthorizing the watchdog agency would ensure that GAO has the legal authority it needs to succeed and better align GAO’s work with congressional priorities, including achieving more taxpayer savings.

Not everyone agrees that GAO needs to be reauthorized. In his testimony, Comptroller General Dodaro warned Congress not to reauthorize the agency, pointing to the risk that new legislation would allow the executive branch to become involved in the law governing its watchdog. But it’s not clear that the White House would exert undue influence over a GAO reauthorization. A veto would certainly be unlikely. Moreover, Congress could use the authorization to actually strengthen legislative branch independence. For example, Congress could reconsider the current law giving the president the authority to nominate the Comptroller General and instead reserve that authority to congressional leaders to allow lawmakers to select GAO’s next leader in 2025. A reauthorization of GAO would also allow Congress to set new rules for GAO’s work, such as to provide target completion dates on recommendation and to provide cost savings estimates.

The looming government shutdown will provide more evidence of the nation’s growing governance challenges and our political leaders’ unwillingness to negotiate about our real fiscal challenges. But the lawmakers working to modernize Congress are showing that there’s still bipartisan support for good government reforms that will make the government work more efficiently for the American people and save hundreds of billions of dollars over time.

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