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Will Congress Get Around to Scrapping Duplicative Programs?

Only about 12 percent of the GAO's recommendations have been fully addressed.

Bill Straub


May 26, 2013 - 12:04 am

WASHINGTON – The General Accounting Office offered a gift to the Senate Homeland Security & Government Affairs Committee on Wednesday — a laundry list of duplicative and overlapping programs within the federal government that can be eliminated to save taxpayers billions of dollars.

But it’s still not clear if Congress is in an accepting mood.

Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro reminded committee members that the GAO has provided guidance regarding unnecessary programs since 2011 and, while some positive steps have been taken, more needs to be done.

The GAO in the recent past has identified about 300 actions within 131 federal government programs that the White House and Congress could take to reduce or eliminate fragmentation, overlap, or duplication or achieve other potential financial benefits. As of March 6, according to the GAO, only about 12 percent of those areas were addressed, 66 percent were partially addressed, and 21 percent were not addressed at all.

Since March 6, the administration and Congress have taken additional steps — President Obama proposed 215 cuts and consolidations in his 2014 budget package with an estimated savings of $25 billion. But Dodaro noted “as the fiscal pressures facing the nation continue, so too does the need for executive branch agencies and Congress to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government programs and activities.”

“While the executive branch and Congress have made some progress in addressing the issues that we have previously identified, additional steps are needed to address the remaining areas to achieve associated benefits,” Dodaro said. “A number of the issues are difficult to address and implementing many of the actions identified will take time and sustained leadership.”

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the committee’s ranking member, credited the GAO for citing $250 billion worth of duplications but expressed disappointment that “Congress has truly not acted.”

“As far as eliminating duplications, consolidating programs and actually making a difference for the American people, Congress is reticent to approach those things,” Coburn said.

Coburn urged the agency to make direct recommendations on programs that should be cut or shut down, asserting such a move would be a “powerful tool.”

This year’s GAO report identified 31 new areas where federal agencies could achieve greater efficiency or effectiveness, according to Dodaro. The Department of Defense could save as much as $82 million without adversely affecting the military’s level of performance by addressing the fragmented approach it takes in acquiring combat uniforms. In fact, the Pentagon doesn’t ensure equivalent levels of uniform performance and protection for service members conducting joint military operations in different uniforms, potentially exposing some to increased risk on the battlefield.

Since 2002, the military services have shifted from using two camouflage patterns to seven service-specific camouflage uniforms with varying patterns and colors. Although DOD established a board to help ensure collaboration and DOD-wide integration of clothing and textiles, Dodaro said the GAO found that none of the services has taken advantage of opportunities to reduce costs through partnering on inventory management or by collaborating on greater standardization.

“In addition, DOD reported that it could save up to $82 million in development and acquisition cost savings through increased collaboration among the military services,” Dodaro said.

The GAO also found that the concerns of catfish are taken seriously within the federal government. The 2008 Farm Bill assigned the Food Safety and Inspection Service within the U.S. Department of Agriculture with the responsibility of examining and inspecting catfish and for creating a catfish inspection program — even though federal programs with the same duties already existed. Repealing the provision, the GAO said, “could save taxpayers millions of dollars annually without affecting the safety of catfish intended for human consumption.”

Earlier this week, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) announced plans to offer an amendment to this year’s farm bill to repeal the catfish provision with a commiserate savings of about $14 million per year. The duty will remain with the Food and Drug Administration.

“We found overlap among federal programs or initiatives in a variety of areas, such as joint veterans and defense healthcare services, export promotion activities, drug abuse prevention and treatment programs and veterans’ employment and training programs,” Dodaro said.

The report also identifies 14 areas where cost savings or better revenue collections can be achieved. The Department of Health and Human Services, for instance, could cancel the Medicare Advantage Quality Bonus Payment Demonstration since most of the bonuses will go to plans with average performance and no credible evaluation plan exists. Canceling the demonstration for 2014 would save about $2 billion.

GAO also cited opportunities to save billions more in areas such as expanding strategic sourcing, providing greater oversight for Medicaid supplemental payments, and reducing subsidies for crop insurance.

On the positive side, Dodaro said the federal government has taken some actions that will save millions of dollars. In 2012, for instance, the GAO suggested that the Air Force review and renegotiate food service contracts to better align with the needs of the various installations.

According to Air Force officials, after reviewing the food service contracts at eight installations, the Air Force renegotiated their contracts for a total savings of over $2.5 million per year. Air Force officials told the GAO that the service will now review contracts annually for areas where costs can be reduced.

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the committee chairman, said he intends to work with Coburn to implement many of the findings presented in the GAO report but acknowledged the job won’t prove easy.

“The issues cut across various departments and longstanding federal programs that have entrenched constituencies and, in many cases, provide the public with much-needed services,” Carper said. “It is time, then, for Congress and the executive branch to roll up our sleeves and get to work solving these issues.”

Washington freelancer Bill Straub is former White House correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service.

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All Comments   (7)
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"repeal the catfish provision with a commiserate savings"

While I may commiserate with someone who has been deprived of a decent education through no fault of his own, I still cannot accept such gross abuse of the language in a published commentary.

Please hire a proof-reader!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Art C, Didn't know I was advocating along those lines, but I see your point. In fed budget speak, what I'd really like to see is an offset rule for all new programs, or new missions for existing programs. It would go like this ... for every new program, there must be an equivalent offset in numbers of personnel, budget, and regulations that must be eliminated in an existing program to pay for the new one. In other words, treat all new programs as above core. Then maybe the politicians would have to really think through the consequences of their playing with our taxes as if it were monopoly money and the impact of all the new laws and regulations they sign into law without reading today.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
what happened to the Grace report, citing duplication and waste that could easily be eliminated with no loss of services.

But some bureaucrats, you know, those watching porn or playing solitaire all day on our tax payer dollars would have no job.

Well that would be called, for most tax payers a good start
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
----- "Will Congress Get Around to Scrapping Duplicative Programs?"

This lot? No way in hell. First we scrap the current Congress, then we have the chance at scrapping.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Agree with the need to cut our bloated federal government but I submit that the problem isn't failure to pay heed to the GAO. It's politicians who feel they must constantly bring home more and more goodies to their constituents in order to get reelected, who feel the need to pass more laws every year to justify their obscene salaries and perks as year round law makers. No politician ever gets rewarded for eliminating a law, or eliminating pork.
There is always someone who benefits from more laws and more pork who will back with money and manpower said politician's reelection campaign, whereas there is no-one who backs with their money and time the frugal politician who cuts back on unnecessary laws or cuts back on services and freebies. Worse yet, once a federal program takes root, it builds a constituency of its own that will fight against any effort to prune its ever expanding branches while the majority of taxpaying Americans remain silent and do nothing to help the occasional brave fool who tries to prune the growing morass that is our federal government.
What is needed are term limits. Everyone gets only one term in an office period. No reelection to the same office period. In a country of over 310 million, I'm sure we can find 545 new fresh men and women to be our Representatives and Senators, plus 2 more for Pres and VP in each term, that could outshine the current political incumbents. Hell, I'd be willing to let it be a draft like a military draft but in this case a political draft. Even random chance would surely raise the competence and honesty of our federal politicians over what we have now. Better yet, with a draft the billions spent on reelections could be put to better use in growing the economy. And as a sweetener, combine it with a mega-power-ball drawing to hold the attention of our ADD disabled citizens to their civic duty. To badly plagiarize William Buckley: Making the first 545 names in the Boston telephone directory our Congress would be an improvement over the one we have now, so why not a mega-power-ball draft?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
What you're really saying whether you know it or not is that you want to turn all the power of government over to the people who know where the light switches and restrooms in government offices are; the lobbyists, staffers, and career bureaucrats. I've worked for and with a lot of elected officials. Most of them could spout sound bites and platitudes that were pretty at least to someone, few of them had a clue how to get a government to do ANYTHING. The vast majority of newly elected officials are absolutely at the mercy of staff and lobbyists. People get appointed to cabinet positions because of who they know, not what they know. I worked in my government's department of administration, the agency that exercised ministerial control over the government's money, people, and stuff. In over twenty years I never had a commissioner with any subject matter expertise in any of the functions of the department. Ocassionally, they'd hire a deputy commissioner or special assistant to the commissioner with subject matter expertise but normally rather than actually being a part of developing policy and programs they made decisions about recommendations made to them by career people. Some had pretty good BS alarms, some you could lead down the primrose path with alacrity.

At the division director level, the level at which the work of government is actually done in the federal and most state governments, the director may be an apolitical technocrat, but since it is usually an appointed position, they're not that apolitical. They had to have done something politic to get the appointment and they have to be REALLY politic to keep it on a change of administration, especially a transition from one party to the other. Division directors also are often just contributors or hacks that need a job and agency work gets done in spite of them, not because of them.

The big issue with the size of government for a Republican is that the federal government is designed by Democrats to employ and service the maximum number of Democrats and their client constituencies. No Republican President or Governor could staff all the appointee positions in their government with loyal, competent Republicans if his/her life depended on it, so they leave scads of holdover Democrats in appointee positions then wonder why they're being thwarted, leaded, and sabotaged.

It is the appointees who represent constituencies and who are themselves a constituency. I did my agency's budget proposal and advocated it first to the commissioner, then to the governor's office and finally to the Legislature; guess whose position went in first.

It isn't nearly as sexy as arguing political philosophy, but the key to better and smaller governments that, especially, Republicans can manage is the organizational structure of government. Most governments are still organized in the hierarchal structure typical of the military and large corporations in the 1940s and '50s. In this sort of structure the organic unit, the unit which has all the tools and staff necessary to perform its mission is the division. Geography or size may dictate some sort of regional structure. Divisions either directly or through a region point to a department and a department points to the mayor, governor, or president. This first results in everything being done in at least triplicate and no value is added at any of the levels going up, though much is hidden from the upper levels. Since each division is capable of performing independently, the organization becomes highly stovepiped; divisions don't know what other divisions do and departments often don't know what their divisions are really doing and certainly don't know what the divisions in another department are doing. Governors and the President added Offices of Management and Budget in the '60s and '70s to have at least one entity that looked at the whole government, but OMBs have no constituencies and little real power; witness the fact that the federal OMBs recommendations have been largely ignored.

Before this becomes a book, well actually it already has and is available on Amazon, the department needs to become the organic unit of government. All infrastructure functions, the money, people, and stuff, including IT needs to move up to the highest level where commonality can be found, usually the departmentment but some functions should be centralized to the enterprise level, e.g., IT. This would dramatically reduce the number of appointee level managers and dramatically reduce the the number of duplicative functions. It would not eliminate programs and thus the only constituency it would effect would be the appointees and employees who were eliminated, a manageable constituency, especially for a Republican because none of them were likely to have voted for him/her.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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