The Government Accountability Office has estimated agencies could save billions of dollars by reducing the number of agency programs with overlapping missions, but the Office of Management and Budget has yet to complete a comprehensive inventory of agency programs nearly a decade after Congress mandated it.
GAO Comptroller General Gene Dodaro told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management that OMB has failed to produce the agency program inventory as required under the 2010 Government Performance and Results Modernization Act.
Without that inventory, Dodaro said it falls on GAO to do this time-consuming work. And even then, he added that his agency’s report only represents a snapshot in time.
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“Even the agencies can’t identify these opportunities for savings very efficiently, because there is not this comprehensive program inventory. OMB would really be the only potential place to identify these things across government — in addition to GAO — and they don’t have the tools to be able to do this, because there is no inventory,” Dodaro said during Tuesday’s hearing. “We have to go in and actually dig it out and identify them ourselves.”
Between 2011 and 2018, agencies met 57% of GAO’s 700-plus recommendations and partially met another 24% of recommendations, according to an agency report released during the hearing. During this time, agencies have saved $216 billion, with another $46 billion in projected cost savings.
GAO recommends that OMB issues guidance on how to identify and measure improper payments. The watchdog office estimates that agencies issued $151 billion in improper payment last year, but Dodaro told senators that figure likely understates the magnitude of the problem.
“It concerns me that federal agencies do not even have a grasp of the true magnitude of this problem, let alone how to fix it,” said Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), the ranking member of the subcommittee.
Congress, for its part, has already introduced several bipartisan bills aimed at reducing improper payments.
Last week, the committee approved the Stopping Improper Payments to Deceased People Act, introduced by Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and John Kennedy (R-La.). The bill would give more agencies access to the Social Security Administration’s full Master Death File. Those agencies could then cross-reference the death list with their own data to avoid sending out improper payments.
“We do have bipartisan support to quit paying dead people,” subcommittee Chairman Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said as a joke. “But government’s so bad that even when we agree on it, we still, unfortunately, have been doing this for decades, so we have to get better on it.”
Dodaro voiced his support for the bill, adding that “it’s kind of maddening,” that SSA, for example, won’t share its full Master Death File with the Treasury Department to check against its Do Not Pay List.
“Unless you get to the root cause of the problem and try to prevent the payments from being made improperly in the first place, we’re never going to see a great degree of progress, because it’s too hard to recoup once they’re identified,” Dodaro said.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) in 2017 introduced the Taxpayer Right to Know Act, which would have required agencies to publicly report financial data and performance for programs that cost more than $1 million. The bill would’ve also required OMB to keep tabs on the number of federal employees tasked to each agency program, as well as keep track of the number of beneficiaries that rely on each program.
The bill passed the House in 2017, but stalled out in the Senate. Lankford on Tuesday said the bill, despite its bipartisan backing, had gotten some pushback.
“For some reason, there are some in the Senate who have literally told me they don’t want that kind of information transparency out there — that if there’s that level of transparency out there, then there’s no telling what could happen,” Lankford said.
Dodaro said the bill, if passed, would allow OMB and agencies to run faster searches on what has taken GAO months to complete.
“It would short-circuit our research. We could turn around things much more quickly if we had this inventory,” Dodaro said.
Congress has already several major government transparency bills in recent years, often amid bipartisan excitement. In 2014, lawmakers passed the Digital Accountability and Transparency (DATA) Act, which aims to track nearly $4 trillion in annual government spending on USASpending.gov.
Lankford asked Dodaro why OMB inventory should compile an inventory of agency programs if the DATA Act already reports out all of this information. However, Dodaro replied that the DATA Act still remains a work in progress.
“The comment has been made that the DATA Act already accomplishes all this,” Lankford said. “Why would we need a comprehensive inventory of federal programs?”
“The DATA Act has not been fully successfully implemented because the information is not accurate yet. I mean, it looks good, and it’s nice, but when you go in and you check the accuracy of it, it doesn’t do that,” Dodaro said.
GAO found in 2017 that while budget data was largely consistent with agency records, only 0-to-1% of awards records on grants, contracts and loans were “fully consistent” with agency records.
Last January, President Donald Trump signed the Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, which requires agencies to appoint chief data and evaluation officers before the end of July. The bill would also require agencies to release inventories of data to the public.
OMB officials earlier this month said the agency expects to soon release guidance for the bill.
While neither lawmakers nor GAO officials made specific references to the Evidence Act, Dodaro said it currently falls on agency watchdogs to evaluate programs rather than the agencies themselves.
“What we find in a lot of these programs is they’ve never been evaluated to know whether successful or not. It’s really incumbent on GAO or someone else to say these programs are not effective before they get stopped … as opposed to the agencies having to prove that the program is effective and should be continued,” Dodaro said.