Proposed cuts to Congress’s investigative arm spark protest

Plans to cut deeply into Congress’s investigative arm have sparked a protest from a bipartisan group of senators who say it would hurt the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) ability to track government waste and abuse.

Four Republican senators and one Democrat, Claire McCaskill (Mo.), have sent a letter of complaint to Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on The Legislative Branch.

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Nelson and the subpanel’s senior Republican, Sen. John Hoeven (N.D.), have crafted legislation to cut Congress’s budget by 5.2 percent, or $200 million. Nearly $42 million in savings would come from the GAO budget.

GOP Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.) and John McCain (Ariz.), longtime watchdogs of wasteful government spending, said the cut falls disproportionately on an agency critical to congressional oversight of federal spending.

“The Government Accountability Office is being unfairly singled out with both excessively deep cuts and overly burdensome new mandates that will consume the agency’s more limited resources for no apparent benefit,” Coburn and McCain wrote in a letter to Nelson and Hoeven.

They argue it’s wrong to cut the watchdog agency at a time when Congress is holding fewer oversight hearings than in the past. Congressional committees held 318 fewer oversight hearings in the 111th Congress than in the 110th.

“There is no question [that] oversight of the federal government, a primary function of the legislative branch, will suffer as a result of this dramatic cut to GAO funding,” they wrote.

McCaskill and GOP Sens. Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Scott Brown (Mass.) also signed the missive. They sent a copy to Hoeven.

The lawmakers argue that cutting GAO’s budget is counterproductive to deficit reduction because it saves about $80 in federal spending for every dollar of its budget. The agency documented $43 billion in financial benefits in 2009.

They questioned why the GAO budget is being “slashed” while the Senate’s official personnel and office expenses account is escaping “with a shave of just 3.17 percent.”

They objected to the Appropriations Committee’s proposal to require GAO to add a cost analysis to every report requested by Congress, detailing the number of employees who worked on it, the number of hours it took and associated travel expenses.

“While this information may be interesting, practically it seems to be an overly burdensome mandate that would further consume GAO’s dwindling resources without providing any obvious cost benefit,” the lawmakers wrote.

The letter notes the number of legislatively mandated studies requested of GAO increased by more than 30 percent between 2010 and 2011.

David Walker, who served as GAO’s comptroller general from 1998 to 2008, said the agency should not be immune to cuts, but urged lawmakers to weigh carefully the overall impact.

“There’s absolutely no question that GAO generates one of the highest returns on investment of any agency in the U.S. government, or any accountability organization in the world — and that needs to be taken into consideration when determining an appropriate level of resources,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it should be exempt from any reductions. There are always opportunities to improve.”

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Walker said requiring the investigative agency to divert resources to fulfill bookkeeping requirements “doesn’t pass the cost-benefit test.”

Nelson has acknowledged his proposed cuts to legislative agencies are painful, but he argues Congress must lead by example when it comes to budget cutting.

“These cuts are strategic and sensible,” Nelson said earlier this month in a news release. “But make no mistake, they are real and will force Congress and the agencies on Capitol Hill to live with less. As Congress works to bring down federal spending, bring down the debt and balance the federal budget, Congress must tighten its own belt.

“As I’ve said several times this year, our motto — to paraphrase Harry Truman — is `The Buck Shrinks Here.’”