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Tom Coburn’s annual gift to taxpayers

The pandemic has brought into focus the government’s growing fiscal challenges. The nation’s public debt will soon reach levels not seen since World War II–limiting Washington’s ability to support public health needs and the economy.

Former Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn recognized this growing problem, frequently warning his colleagues and constituents about the consequences the nation’s growing debt will have on future generations.

One of the ways that the former doctor and citizen-lawmaker, who passed away this spring, worked to address this problem was through exhaustive government oversight. His annual “Wastebook” reports highlighted hundreds of examples of ridiculous government projects. He led a bipartisan investigation into the Social Security disability insurance program that uncovered corruption and fraud. Sen. Coburn also supported nonpartisan watchdogs’ independent oversight of federal agencies.

While he was nicknamed “Dr. No” for often blocking costly and unnecessary legislation, what might be Dr. Coburn’s most consequential action during his time in the Senate was an amendment that he authored and advanced.

In 2010, Dr. Coburn passed an amendment to legislation raising the federal government’s debt ceiling to require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to study and issue annual reports identifying duplication across government agencies and programs. Prior to the inaugural edition’s release, Dr. Coburn memorably remarked that the report would make Congress look like “jackasses.”

He was right.

GAO has identified massive amounts of duplication in federal programs, including 15 programs on financial literacy, 160 federal housing assistance programs, 94 green building programs, 253 crime prevention programs, 14 diesel emission reduction programs, and 209 STEM education programs.

According to the latest report released this week, GAO estimates that the annual reports that resulted from his amendment have yielded $429 billion in financial benefits over the decade.

Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, who leads the Government Accountability Office, described Sen. Coburn’s amendment requiring the reports on annual duplication as, “the gift that keeps on giving.”

Unfortunately, there is still a lot of money being left on the table. Congress has only acted on 33 percent of GAO’s recommendations. As such, duplication remains a major problem and an unnecessary drain on taxpayer resources.

Congress has an opportunity to continue Dr. Coburn’s legacy by finishing the job of consolidating and eliminating duplicative programs.

Lawmakers should also seek new ways to partner with nonpartisan watchdogs to find taxpayer savings. For example, GAO recently estimated that federal agencies made an estimated $175 billion in improper payments in FY2019, and that $75 billion of that was a financial loss to the federal government. That’s nearly $600 wasted for each American household.

GAO has a new team focused on using data science to modernize government oversight. Like banks monitoring credit card transactions, federal agencies could use data analytics to stop billions in improper payments. Congress could pass legislation requiring GAO to increase monitoring of federal agencies improper payments to focus agencies on ending this particular kind of egregious federal waste. Like Dr. Coburn’s 2010 amendment, the result could be hundreds of billions in government savings.

For now, we should be thankful for the former Oklahoma senator foresight. Requiring federal auditors to annually study and report on government duplication is the gift that keeps on giving for taxpayers.

Bryan Berky is the Executive Director of Pursuit. Dan Lips is the Director of Cyber and National Security with the Lincoln Network. Berky and Lips previously worked for former Senator Tom Coburn.

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