Coburn to Congress: ‘The Problem Is Us’

WASHINGTON – A push to eliminate waste across government programs has been hindered by Congress’s own failure to do its job, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) told a congressional committee last week.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee heard testimony from Sens. Coburn and Tom Carper (D-Del.) and representatives from various think tanks about ways to reduce government waste.

As part of the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act, Congress must conduct oversight hearings and hold agencies accountable for meeting program goals. Under the law, agencies are to determine performance metrics for programs together with Congress and ensure those goals are being met.

In 2010, Congress passed the Government Performance and Results Modernization Act that directed the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to produce an annual report on duplication across government. Since then, the GAO has released three annual reviews outlining ways the government can save money by consolidating programs.

“I thought it would embarrass us into acting,” Coburn, said at the hearing, referring to the legislation he sponsored requiring the GAO to produce the report. “Boy, was I wrong. We haven't done anything.”

Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, spoke to the committee about the numerous cases of overlap in federal programs.

Schatz said there are 56 programs from 20 different agencies devoted to promoting financial literacy “intended to improve the fiscal acumen of the American people.” Fifteen of those programs cost $30.7 million in fiscal year 2010.

“While it would be funny if it wasn’t so sad, there is no reliable data on the total cost of the financial literacy programs, and a government that itself is going broke is trying to teach others how to balance their checkbooks,” Schatz said in his written testimony.

Coburn recently released his “Waste Book,” an annual compilation of wasteful projects, which identifies frivolous spending on programs that include $3 million spent by NASA to learn how Congress works, and $1 million by the National Endowment for the Humanities over three years to study popular romance in multimedia.

“I'm embarrassed that we, as members of Congress, have allowed this list, with the multitude of programs that are on there, with the duplicity that's in it, that we haven't fixed it,” Coburn said. “And we don't have an excuse. We're guilty of not doing our jobs.”

Coburn, who is the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said the report contains 100 examples of wasteful and low-priority spending worth about $30 billion.

He said government has grown so big that only one government agency – the Department of Education – actually knows all of its programs.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the committee’s chairman, promised his support to Carper and Coburn, and said he would guarantee a vote on any bill addressing government waste in his committee.