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Awash in Waste



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A new report from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found a stunning amount of government waste as a result of duplicative or overlapping agencies and programs, and identified 34 areas where lawmakers can realize significant savings.

The GAO study, which was mandated by an amendment that Sen. Tom Coburn (R., Okla.) attached to last year’s debt-limit resolution, did not provide an exact dollar figure as to how much money the government was potentially wasting, but Coburn estimated it could be as much as $200 billion. He said the report had identified “the mother lode of government waste.”

“This report confirms what most Americans assume about their government,” Coburn said in a statement. “We are spending trillions of dollars every year and nobody knows what we are doing. The executive branch doesn’t know. The congressional branch doesn’t know.  Nobody knows.”

On Monday, before the report was made public, Coburn predicted that the findings would “make us all look like jackasses,” and would contain enough actionable information “keep Congress busy for the rest of the year.”

The report, titled “Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs, Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue,” spells out in plain terms the implications of its findings.

“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 report states. “Considering the amount of program dollars involved in the issues we have identified, even limited adjustments could result in significant savings.”

A few highlights from the report:

  • Eight federal agencies oversee 80 programs to provide “transportation for the transportation disadvantaged.” The GAO could not determined a cost estimate for these programs because the agencies “often do not separately track transportation costs from other program costs.” However, 23 of these programs were allotted $1.7 billion in 2009.
  • Two separate bureaus within the State Department received close to $80 billion in 2010 for “Arms Control and Nonproliferation.” The reports found significant redundancy, noting that a guiding document to outline the role and responsibilities of these bureaus “has never been drafted and approved.”
  • The Department of Transportation funds more than 100 “surface transportation” programs overseen by five individual agencies (and 6,000 employees) at an annual cost of nearly $60 billion. According to the report: “The current approach to surface transportation was established in 1956 to build the Interstate Highway System, but has not evolved to reflect current priorities in transportation planning.”
  • Federal data centers, which grew in number from 432 in 1998 to more than 2,000 in 2010, cost up to $450 million annually. The federal government could save between $150 billion and $200 billion over the next decade simply by consolidating these centers.
  • Twenty federal agencies runs 56 programs designed to promote “financial literacy,” but, ironically enough, no one has any idea how much these programs actually cost, because “most federal agencies do not have an estimate for spending on ‘financial literacy’ per se.”
  • Nine federal agencies operate 47 job-training programs, 44 of which overlap with at least one other program. These programs cost $18 billion in 2009, but GAO found that due to their duplicative nature, “little is known about [their] effectiveness.
  • Ten agencies oversee 82 distinct programs on “teacher quality” at an annual cost of more than $4 billion. The report discovered that “there is no government wide strategy to minimize fragmentation, overlap or duplication among these many programs.”
  • Fifteen federal agencies administer over 30 food-related laws to the tune of $1.6 billion annually. GAO discovered that “seafood oversight,” normally performed by the FDA, had been split by recent legislation that assigned responsibility for monitoring catfish to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
  • Domestic ethanol tax credits, totaling close to $6 billion, are “largely unneeded today to ensure demand for domestic ethanol production.”
  • More than 170 tax expenditures — in the form of tax exclusions, credits, deductions, deferrals, and preferential tax rates — account for almost $1 trillion.
  • At least five departments, eight agencies, and more than two dozen presidential appointees have been tasked with coordinating an effective defense again a biological terror attack, at a cost of $6.5 billion. However, the report concludes: “There is no national plan . . . and the United States lacks the technical and operational capabilities required for an adequate response.”

The full report is here.



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