Coburn to Congress: Look in the mirror for the cause of waste

Agencies are wasting hundreds of billions of dollars each year because Congress isn’t doing its job.

That was the simple message from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) Thursday.

Coburn continued to beat the drum that change must start at home if the government is going to control its spending.

And despite his best efforts to embarrass lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers of Congress, he hasn’t succeeded in making much progress.

Coburn said the 2011 Government Accountability Office’s report on duplication across government was his first attempt at forcing change. The third edition of the GAO report on duplication is expected to come out this March.


“There’s been one piece of legislation that has come out of Congress in four years — it didn’t even come out of Congress, it came out of the House that consolidated one of the things that GAO said that needed to be consolidated, called the Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills Act. It’s the only thing that has happened in four years. The problem isn’t that we don’t know what the problem is. The problem is we don’t act on the problem,” Coburn said during his testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “It’s hard. There’s no question. If you talk to the members of the [House Education] and Workforce Committee, it’s hard when they consolidated 36 programs into six. It’s not easy work. But that bill hasn’t even been taken up by the Senate or the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the Senate. So the problem is us.”

Coburn, who is the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said even sequestration didn’t force lawmakers to cut or eliminate hundreds of duplicated or outdated programs.

“The problem is us,” he said. “We are not acting on the information we have.”

GAO found last April that agencies spent $95 billion on 162 areas of duplication across government, including 679 renewable energy programs from 23 different agencies that costs $15 billion to run.

Coburn even praised President Barack Obama for including many of the programs GAO highlighted in his budget request. But he said Congress continues to ignore the overlap.

The White House tried to address program duplication in 2012 with an 11-agency pilotto compare similar programs and determine if they can be merged. The Office of Management and Budget used the pilot to create a governmentwide inventory of programs, which it published on in May.

On top of the GAO report, Coburn also released his annual waste book last month that highlighted about 100 projects worth about $30 billion.

More attention needed

The House committee hearing seems to be its latest attempt to shine more light on the overlapping programs.

Coburn said the first thing that can be done by lawmakers is pay closer attention to the programs they are authorizing and GAO’s reports.

Congress also must conduct real oversight hearings and hold agencies accountable for meeting programmatic goals. That is the theory behind the Government Performance and Results Act passed in 1993 and the modernization act of 2010. Under the law, agencies are to determine performance metrics for programs and jointly with Congress ensure those goals are being met.

Coburn said he met with Sen, Susan Collins (R-Maine), the former ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, before the House hearing to get some advice about how to get lawmakers to pay more attention to the duplication problem.

“It is hard work. You have to win over the heart of the committee chairman of jurisdiction and say, ‘Won’t you do oversight on this? Won’t you try to consolidate it?'” Coburn said. “If that doesn’t work, what you have to do is embarrass the members of Congress into doing their job. 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 in it that we haven’t fixed it. We don’t have an excuse. We are guilty of not doing our jobs. And the way to turn that around is to start doing it. I understand this committee has jurisdiction to look at it, but you can’t change it unless the committees’ of jurisdiction act.”

He encouraged House members to be “ambassadors” to those separate committees and push them to do the hard work to find savings by eliminating duplication.

Whack-a-mole with waste

House lawmakers are starting to pay more attention to the amount of program overlap.

For example, the committee passed Rep. James Lankford’s (R-Okla.) bill, the Taxpayer’s Right to Know, in July 2013, calling for more transparency into how agencies and Congress spend money. The bill never received a vote in the full House, however.

House committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) promised to Coburn and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who also testified Thursday, his support as well to address programmatic duplication.

“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. And hopefully if we can suggest ones to you, we can come to the same agreement. And I’ll begin today scheduling that every week if we have a bill that we agree on, no matter how small, if it falls within our jurisdiction either completely or partially, I’ll guarantee you a vote in this committee on it.”

In addition to GAO and Coburn’s waste book, several watchdog or good government groups pushed the committee members to act more aggressively.

Their suggestions were all over the spectrum from privatizing air traffic controllers and the Postal Service to changing the rules in Congress.

“One of the main impediments to reducing the mismanagement of the taxpayer’s money is Congress’ tendency to create a new program to solve a problem rather than spending the time to determine an existing program can address the same subject matter,” said Tom Schatz, the president of Citizens Against Government Waste. “In fact, until the beginning of the 113th Congress, there was no formal requirement that committees even specify whether a reported bill that establishes or reauthorizes a federal program duplicates another federal program. The rules of the House were amended to require this information reported in each bill, and provide committee chairman with the authority to request a GAO review of any legislation referred to their committee to determine if there was duplication. This should help improve transparency, but it’s not a requirement that Congress not approve a new problem, but simply to list that they might have a duplication in this legislation. Proposals by Sen. Coburn to change the rules of the Senate in a similar manner have twice failed to receive the necessary 67 votes.”

Coburn and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) introduced legislation in April to have the Congressional Research Service analyze legislation and determine whether it would create new programs that duplicate existing ones. This was the third time Coburn and Udall introduced this same bill, and each time the bill failed to advance.

Time to bring back the Byrd committee?

Chris Edwards, the director of tax policy at the Cato Institute, said the government should follow the leads of other governments, specifically Canada and Great Britain. He said Canada privatized its air traffic controller system, and Great Britain made its postal service a non-profit organization run by the private sector.

Brandon Arnold, the vice president of governmental affairs for the National Taxpayers Union, said NTU partnered with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group to come up with 65 ideas to cut that both sides of the aisle would support. These 65 suggestions could save up to $500 billion, the two groups estimated.

Arnold said there are also some things Congress could do from a process perspective, such as strengthening whistleblower protections.

Arnold said the government has taken a step forward with the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012, but then a step back last year with the Conyers court case that will impact federal employees’ rights to shine light on potential wrongdoings in government.

He said Congress should end the use-it or lose-it spending sprees that occur at the end of the fiscal year and reestablishing the Byrd committee, sometimes called the anti-appropriations committee, which was a bicameral committee whose mission was to identify and recommend the termination of nonessential spending.

Arnold said Congress also could create “a sunset commission or committee to acquire the periodic review of programs that are no longer needed.”

He said Congress also needs to require the Pentagon to audit its spending, and limit “spending by keeping spending caps in place and requiring agencies to prioritize their programs. When you start to trim away at their budgets, it can be very effective in reducing waste.”

In the coming months, lawmakers and agencies will get more insight into how much progress really has been made and where are the newest opportunities. The White House once again will propose cuts or consolidations to programs in its annual budget request that is due out in February. GAO’s duplication report to Congress coming in March also will show how much progress has been made in reducing overlapping programs and how much more work still needs to be done.


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