GAO finds billions in wasteful, duplicative federal spending

Unnecessary government programs are costing taxpayers tens of billions of dollars annually, a new government study found.

The study, issued Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) following a three-year investigation, found 31 new areas of redundant or wasteful spending. Added to the findings of similar reports issued in 2011 and 2012, the study brings the total areas of duplicative spending to more than 160, according to the report, which also lays out scores of recommendations to counter the problem.  

“We can’t afford to continue to operate the way we’re operating,” U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro told lawmakers at the end of a hearing on the report. “We can do better.”  

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The White House countered that it has made progress on addressing more than 100 of the previously identified areas of duplicative spending, and said President Obama’s soon-to-be-unveiled budget proposal will contain hundreds more in cuts, consolidations and savings. 

“From day one, the president has made rooting out waste and improving the way government works a top priority,” said Danny Werfel, controller of the White House Office of Federal Financial Management. “We are committed to building on the progress that’s been made.” 

Wasteful spending documented in the GAO report is spread across dozens of federal agencies, and ranges in scope from superfluous federal catfish inspections to operations at joint military bases. It includes an estimated $82 million in unnecessary expenses for military uniforms (which come in seven different camouflage patterns) and $8.35 billion over 10 years for an unproven Medicare Advantage bonus program. 

Billions more in revenue is lost as a result of untargeted enforcement by the Internal Revenue Service, the report found. 

GAO also found 29 contracts awarded by the Department of Homeland Security that overlapped with activities already conducted elsewhere in the department. Together the contracts totaled roughly $66 million.

Other problem areas are the federal procurement of overlapping IT systems and agency expenditures totaling billions of dollars for geospatial mapping systems that other agencies have already bought. 

“It’s been well reported that these are duplicative investments,” Dodaro said. 

The bloat comes as government-wide spending cuts are inflicting pain on many departments. 

“At a time of increased budget pressure, American taxpayers cannot afford to keep buying the same service twice,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle raised concerns over GAO’s findings, even if they disagreed about how the wasted money would be better spent. 

“Whether you believe the savings should go towards deficit reduction or making our current government programs more effective and efficient, we should all be able to agree that a dollar wasted here is a dollar that is not put to better use elsewhere,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the panel’s top Democrat. 

Cummings said much of the blame falls on Congress for failing to act on GAO’s previous recommendations to consolidate and cut programs. 

The report lays out more than 80 recommendations to reduce the wasteful spending, in addition to more than 300 that were issued in the previous two reports. 

“It is unconscionable and immoral for Congress and the administration to ignore this problem,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said Tuesday in a written statement. Coburn, the top Republican on the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, was the author of an amendment requiring the annual reports. 

But the Senate panel’s chairman said lawmakers must tread carefully as they respond to the report’s legislative branch recommendations.

“Just because a program is identified by GAO as potentially ‘duplicative’ doesn’t mean that it is wasteful or unnecessary,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.). “We must now do the hard work in Congress of reviewing the programs that GAO believes may be ‘duplicative’ to determine where we can find efficiencies.”

As for the remaining recommendations, an administration official noted that the White House and executive branch agencies have moved to address 104 of the previously identified 131 areas of concern, Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget would go even further. 

The president will propose 215 cuts, consolidations and other savings that, together, are projected to save more than $25 billion, the official said.

— Updated at 8:34 p.m.