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.

"Take anything out of your waste book that falls within our mutual jurisdiction and if you'll make a vote on it with your chairman, and I'll make sure our committee brings the same bill and votes it out to the full House,” Issa said. “Let's start to figure out whether it's $100 million, which would be $1 billion over 10 years, or $1 billion, which would be $10 billion over 10 years. You pick something out of the book or something that's not in the book, and if the two of you are prepared to hold a committee vote on it, I'll guarantee you a vote here on the same bill.”

Carper said cutting waste is a bipartisan issue and the “key is to find that 80 percent that we agree on.”

Both Republicans and Democrats on the committee condemned the government’s profligate spending.

Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) lamented Amtrak’s $72 million loss on food services and vacant federal property that costs billions of dollars to operate and maintain. Mica has held hearings in empty warehouses in Washington, D.C., to put pressure on the General Services Administration to sell some of these properties.

“You got to just keep going after the bastards until you're successful. I don't know anything else you can do,” Mica said.

The GAO found in its 2013 report that agencies spent $95 billion on 162 areas of duplication across government, including 679 renewable energy programs from 23 different agencies that cost $15 billion to run.

The GAO also found that Congress and the Obama administration have made some progress in reducing waste. For example, Congress allowed a tax credit of ethanol to expire at the end of 2011, which reduced revenue losses by addressing overlapping federal efforts directed at increasing domestic production of ethanol.

Nevertheless, the GAO said the executive branch and Congress could do more to achieve substantial savings.

Brandon Arnold, vice president of governmental affairs at the National Taxpayers Union, said his organization worked with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group to come up with ideas that both sides of the aisle could support. The report contains 65 recommendations for Congress that would save over $500 billion over 10 years.

Arnold called for an end to the “use it or lose it” spending sprees that occur at the end of every fiscal year, and reestablishing the Byrd Commission, a bicameral committee tasked with identifying and recommending the termination of non-essential spending.

Several witnesses acknowledged the difficulty in defining waste. But Chris Edwards, director of the Cato Institute’s tax policy studies, laid out a simple way to identify it.

“What is waste? Well, it's government spending where the cost is higher than the benefits created for citizens,” Edwards said. “And in my view, it's also federal activities that the federal government does a poor job at that could be much better carried out by state local governments in the private sector.”