GAO report could provide Dem road map

In advance of what is expected to be the start of a busy season of congressional investigation and oversight by the new Democratic majority next year, Congress’s independent investigation agency has produced a roadmap the new committee chairmen could use as a starting point.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Friday distributed a 44-page document to the House and Senate leadership and committee offices in both parties outlining what the agency and its chief, Comptroller General David Walker, believe should be the short-, medium- and long-term priorities for congressional overseers.

Although the GAO issues other far-reaching reports on critical government programs, the agency has never produced a sweeping set of recommendations for congressional oversight, Walker said.

The aim of the document is to encourage the congressional leadership to consider the GAO’s recommendations when setting its agenda for next year, said Walker, who has seven years remaining in his 15-year term.

“GAO is an expert on oversight, and its recommendations for oversight topics will be very helpful in setting priorities for next year,” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who is in line to helm the Government Reform Committee, said in a statement.

The GAO report also could provide incoming committee chairs with some political cover to justify their oversight and investigation activities regarding the Bush administration.

The GAO deliberately delayed the release of the report until after the midterm elections, Walker said, adding that several lawmakers endorsed that decision.

During the election campaign and since the Democratic sweep handed the party control of Congress, Republicans have predicted that the new leadership will harass the administration with a flurry of subpoenas as part of a strategy to stymie its agenda.

Democratic leaders have taken pains to deny that they would take harsh actions, such as attempting to impeach President Bush, but have indicated their intentions to scrutinize administration policies. Democrats also have argued that the Republican majority abdicated its responsibility to hold the administration to account.

A spokesman for incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) welcomed the report.

“Obviously, the GAO being the independent investigative arm of Congress is uniquely equipped to assess the oversight failures of the past Congress. We will be reviewing this report and considering the issues raised by the GAO in the months ahead,” Deputy Press Secretary Drew Hammill wrote in an e-mail.

Some incoming committee chairmen have been tightlipped about what their specific plans would be, and spokesmen for several said yesterday that Democratic committee staff had not reviewed the GAO’s recommendations.

The GAO document is broad in its reach but short on specifics, touching on subjects ranging from national security to entitlement programs to federal workforce issues.

But the incoming committee chairmen are likely to find parallels between what the GAO identifies are areas of necessary oversight and their own political agendas.

Under the category of short-term priorities, the GAO suggests that Congress should intervene into some areas that have been targets of Democratic ire over the course of the Bush administration.

For example, the GAO notes that Defense Department programs are particularly vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement. “Billions of dollars have been wasted annually because of the lack of adequate transparency and appropriate accountability across [the department’s] business areas,” the GAO states.

Likewise, the GAO suggests that additional oversight is needed of the process of transforming the intelligence community undertaken by the administration, including the creation of the office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“Progress has been slow in some key areas, including implementing the policies needed to govern information-sharing,” according to the GAO.

The GAO also cites recent cases of federal agencies failing to secure personal information about taxpayers and federal-program beneficiaries, such as the loss of laptops owned by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Also on the GAO’s list of short-term priorities are issues such as: collecting hundreds of billions of dollars of unpaid taxes; overseeing the integration and performance of agencies under the Department of Homeland Security; enforcing existing immigration laws; reviewing U.S. policy on the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and on the nation’s own nuclear stockpile; and revisiting tax breaks for oil and natural gas exploration.

Subjects of an even more political nature are covered in the GAO’s report under the category “Programs that Are in Need of Fundamental Reform.”

First on the investigators’ list is U.S. policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. “After 3 years of effort, the security situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate,” the GAO states. The agency recommends that Congress conduct a broad investigation into the administration’s plans for these countries, its progress so far, and what the future costs of the conflicts would be. In separate recommendations, the GAO urges Congress to investigate the overall readiness of the U.S. military and the State Department’s strategies to improve the nation’s image abroad.

Citing Hurricane Katrina and the preparations for a potential influenza pandemic, the GAO recommends that Congress closely examine the federal government’s capacity to respond to catastrophes.

The report also identifies entitlement-program reform as an area in need of congressional oversight. Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security are fiscally unsustainable, the GAO states.

Also in need of “fundamental reform” are the tax code, national energy policy, immigration policy, environmental policy, farm programs and housing programs, according to the GAO.

Among the longer-term challenges outlined in the GAO report is the projected imbalance between future federal spending and tax revenue, which would require Congress to consider budget reforms.