Won’t Get Duped Again – Taxpayers for Common Sense

Volume XVI No. 9: March 4, 2011

We’re going to assign some required reading for lawmakers searching for money-saving ideas as they tackle the upcoming budget bills. The taxpayers’ in-house watchdog, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), just produced a reportthe length of a winter novel outlining government programs that waste dollars by duplicating functions in other agencies. The list reads like a tragicomedy: From Agriculture to Defense, Economic Development to Energy, Homeland Security to Income Security, the report reveals money lying in plain sight for programs we are paying once, twice, three times or more for. Sure we’ve heard about some of thisbefore, but we can’t afford any more dithering, we need concentrated action from Congress.

The report highlights many programs that Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) has long warned are at risk for waste. The agency was cautious about assigning a dollar figure to eliminating duplicative programs, but Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK)ventured a guess of up to $200 billion. Why the hesitancy? Because the potential for savings is so dependent on how much actual overlap there is and how deep the reforms and consolidation would go. But with the country staring down the barrel of a $1.65 trillion budget deficit, there’s no time like the present for Congress to ramp up oversight of these programs and lay down clear, well-defined, and measurable metrics for success.

Some of the duplicative programs identified by the report include:

  • Education training. The GAO found that more than ten agencies spent over $4 billion to operate 82 teacher quality programs to improve math, technology, engineering, and science education. While not at cross-purposes, many of these programs overlap without much coordination even within agencies. Similarly, there are 44 programs spending more than $18 billion on training and employment efforts.
  • Data centers. In a little over a decade, the number of data centers more than quadrupled to more than 2,000 across 24 agencies. The large number of data centers increases energy use and personnel costs, introduces error, and makes it more difficult to compare data sets. Closing even 800 of these data centers could save nearly $500 million.
  • Economic development initiatives. Using the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance, the GAO found more than 80 programs spanning USDA, Commerce, HUD, and Small Business Administration all dealing with a variety of such initiatives.
  • FEMA grant programs designed to aid states and local governments prepare for emergencies. Currently these 17 programs are not coordinated to prevent multiple requests for the same projects or to ensure only the most needed projects are funded.
  • Defense Department efforts to counter improvised explosive devices (IEDs), such as the Joint Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO).
  • Direct agricultural payments. Outdated and ineffective farm policies waste billions of dollars each year. The GAO report identified nearly $5 billion in potential annual savings from changing one type of payment, direct payments, which are calculated based on a farm’s history of crop production, rather than current factors such as a farm’s income.
  • Tax expenditures. The report notes that almost $1 trillion in federal revenue was forgone in fiscal year 2009 due to tax expenditures – revenue that is viewed by many as spending channeled through the tax system. The 173 tax expenditures are similar to spending programs and can be of the same magnitude or larger than related federal spending for some mission areas — except without the oversight.

Clearly, the GAO has given lawmakers much to think about. Eliminating duplication and waste in government and responsibly enhancing revenue could help the country step back from the fiscal abyss. Congress has a major role to play in making this happen, and the upcoming budget deliberations provide an opportunity for progress — particularly on programs already targeted for reform by the White House, such as the military’s TRICARE health program and consolidating duplicative education programs. Taxpayers shouldn’t get fooled again.

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Let us know what you think.

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