Congress should know what federal agencies are wasting 

Congressional leaders remain focused on passing the $1 trillion infrastructure package and answering the Senate’s $3.5 trillion budget resolution. But a  bipartisan effort is also underway that has the potential to save hundreds of billions of dollars over time by curbing waste, fraud, and abuse across government agencies. 

In July, the House of Representatives passed the FY2022 funding bill for the Legislative Branch, which provides funding for Congress and its support agencies like the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO). The House Appropriations Legislative Branch Subcommittee, chaired by Reps. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanOhio Republican tests positive for breakthrough COVID-19 case The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Government shutdown fears increase as leaders dig in Rep. Tim Ryan becomes latest COVID-19 breakthrough case in Congress MORE (D-Ohio) and Jaime Herrera BeutlerJaime Lynn Herrera BeutlerThe Memo: Never Trumpers sink into gloom as Gonzalez bows out Kinzinger says Trump 'winning' because many Republicans 'have remained silent' Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE (R-Wash.), included language in the report accompanying the funding bill requiring GAO to tell the committee how much federal agencies could save by implementing the watchdog’s open recommendations:

“The Committee is concerned with the potential waste of federal tax dollars due to departments and agencies in the Federal Government not implementing GAO recommendations,” the appropriators wrote. “The Committee directs that no later than 180 days after enactment of this Act, the Comptroller General shall provide the Committees with a report estimating the financial costs of unimplemented Government Accountability Office recommendations by agency.” 

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As of September, GAO says that there are more than 4,700 open recommendations in its database, including nearly 500 “priority recommendations.” How much could American taxpayers expect to save if federal agencies made all of the changes that the congressional watchdog agency is recommending?

The answer is surely in the ballpark of tens (if not hundreds) of billions of dollars.

Since 2002, GAO reports saving the government more than $1 trillion along with 25,000 other government improvements that can’t be quantified. In terms of return-on-investment, GAO says that it has saved at least $100 for every dollar Congress has given its watchdog agency since 2012. For FY2022, the Comptroller General requested a $744 million budget.

So how does GAO’s work result in taxpayer savings? My review of nonpublic data provided by GAO detailing all of its estimated financial accomplishments between 2002 and 2019 revealed GAO’s nonpublic data of its financial accomplishments between 2002 and 2019 revealed a few key trends

First, GAO’s oversight of the Department of Defense resulted in nearly $420 billion in financial benefits from more than 600 different GAO recommendations. That’s more than one-third of all of the savings and financial accomplishments recorded by GAO from 2002 to 2019. Work involving the Health and Human Services Department created $185 billion in savings. GAO’s audits of the Treasury, Agriculture, Federal Communications Commission, and HUD Department all yielded more than $50 billion in savings. 

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Second, GAO provided 1,679 examples of its “financial accomplishments” between 2002 and 2019 — including more than 200 recommendations that resulted in more than $1 billion in savings. More than half of these GAO’s accomplishments resulted in at least $100 million in savings. To put these results into context, GAO’s budget last year was just $661 million

Based on this track record, it’s reasonable to project that closing the majority of currently open recommendations would result in significant savings. 

For example, GAO says that there are more than 500 open recommendations for the Defense Department, including 54 priority recommendations. The HHS Department has more than 160 open recommendations including 21 priority recommendations. These two agencies alone could deliver substantial savings.

It remains to be seen whether the Senate will pass the Legislative Branch funding bill with the accompanying report language. But the bipartisan request by Ryan and Herrera Beutler should also spur other committees to examine how much federal agencies could save within their oversight jurisdiction if they heeded all of the comptroller general’s recommendations. 

For starters, the Armed Services Committees have an obligation to review how the Pentagon could improve its operations, given the $420 billion in estimated savings that have resulted from GAO’s work to date. Other authorizing committees should be keenly interested to learn what the agencies within their jurisdiction could save. These estimates would inform future congressional oversight and legislation to make the government work better.

Reducing waste in the federal budget won’t fix the nation’s long-term fiscal challenges. But leveraging GAO’s nonpartisan oversight to achieve billions in additional savings is a good place to start.

Dan Lips is vice president for national security and government oversight with Lincoln Network.