Will Congress Get Around to Scrapping Duplicative Programs?

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.”