The GAO at 100
The Government Accountability Office will celebrate its 100th anniversary on Wednesday. members of Congress are marking the occasion by boosting the watchdog agency’s budget and leveraging its nonpartisan oversight to deliver new taxpayer savings and improve governance.
The House Appropriations Committee recently included $729 million for GAO in the new legislative branch spending bill, an increase of $68 million. The appropriations also included language in the Committee report requiring the comptroller general to report to Congress how much federal agencies are wasting by not implementing GAO’s open recommendations. Both moves highlight Congress’s interest in using its nonpartisan watchdog to address the nation’s growing fiscal and governance challenges.
Over the past century, GAO has worked to audit government expenditures, conduct oversight of government operations, and advise Congress about problems across the government. In 2021, GAO is operating with about 3,000 employees, which is just two-thirds of its staffing level in the early 1990s before significant budget cuts. It’s current budget is just $630 million, which is just 0.01 percent of the federal budget.
Nevertheless, the congressional watchdog agency’s work yields outsized value for taxpayers. Since the 1990s, the comptroller general has been providing annual estimates to Congress about GAO’s return-on-investment. GAO has reported that its work has resulted in more than $1.1 trillion in financial benefits to American taxpayers and more than 25,000 other improvements. For example, GAO reported that its work resulted in more than $77 billion in financial benefits for the government last year, which amounts to a return on investment of $114 for every dollar that Congress provides the agency.
But the Government Accountability Office has the potential to do much more to help Congress oversee federal agencies and programs.
For starters, increasing the agency’s budget will help GAO continue to rebuild its capacity to conduct oversight and advise Congress. For FY2022, the comptroller general requested $744 million or an increase of 12 percent above last year’s budget. Based on last year’s estimated return-on-investment, an additional 83 million for GAO could yield $9.5 billion in new savings.
These new resources will be used to grow GAO’s new Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics (STAA) team. The Comptroller General created the STAA team in 2019 to boost the legislative branch’s science and technology assessment — a longstanding gap since Congress shuddered its Office of Technology Assessment in the 1990s. GAO’s new S&T capabilities are intended to help Congress oversee the increasingly complex issues where congressional expertise is often lacking, such as “artificial intelligence, quantum computing, infectious disease modeling, and rapid vaccine development,” according to the Comptroller General. The STAA team is also using data analytics to help federal agencies improve payment integrity and address the longstanding problem of misspending which cost federal agencies $175 billion in 2019.
The House Appropriation Committee’s new requirement for the comptroller general to report to Congress on the financial cost of federal agencies being slow to implement its recommendation has the potential to yield tens (if not hundreds) of billions in taxpayer savings. GAO says that more than 4,800 recommendations are currently open, including 460 “priority recommendations.” GAO reports that 77 percent of its recommendations are answered within four years but only half are closed after two.
Improving the timeliness of federal agencies’ reforms would deliver faster taxpayer savings and improve government operations. Deloitte analysts recommended that Congress require GAO to set specific deadlines for agencies to implement their recommended reforms. But the new congressional mandate to require the comptroller general to estimate how much agencies are wasting by being slow to act is a good first step.
Despite its long history, one could argue that the Government Accountability Office is more important today than ever before. The nation’s current political partisanship increases the challenge for Congress to pass reforms to address the nation’s growing fiscal and governance challenges. The federal government is currently operating at deficits not seen since World War II. And the Congressional Budget Office projects the annual federal deficit to average $1.2 trillion over the next decade. GAO’s oversight and nonpartisan recommendations are trusted by both parties on Capitol Hill and often provide an opportunity for Congress to enact meaningful cost-saving reforms.
In its next century, the Government Accountability Office will surely provide great value to Congress and the American people. But it’s up to Congress to help its watchdog reach its potential by giving GAO the resource it needs and leveraging its nonpartisan oversight to help address the nation’s clear fiscal and governance challenges.
Dan Lips is Vice President for National Security and Government Oversight at Lincoln Network.