Progress Under Bush and Obama: The Federal Government Shapes Up

I just returned from a meeting of the Board of Advisers to the Comptroller General of the United States, Gene Dodaro. The CG runs the General Accountability Office, charged by Congress to audit the effectiveness of programs for which the Congress has allocated funds. The GAO has done a vast number of studies (see www.gao.gov) and has been a phenomenal investment for the U.S. government. The GAO generates $80 of savings for the government for every $1 it spends, an extraordinary ROR.

Nonetheless, all the budget bills now in the Congress call for a considerable decrease in the budget of the GAO. The CG has responded by promising to cut the output of the GAO, rather than the quality of that output. (In other words, given the ROR, another stupid decision by the Congress.)

The meeting concerned itself with issues the GAO should address and the results of issues it is addressing. The fiscal crisis occupied much time with discussions of various budgetary proposals and their implications for the functioning of government and their effects on the fiscal crisis. (The GAO, of course, remains rigorously non-partisan.)

More time was spent on some recent reports. One from March 2011 is entitled, Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs, Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue. The report finds that

  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration are responsible for food safety – but so are 15 different agencies.
  • 31 entities within the Department of Defense are charged with responding to warfighter urgent needs.
  • 80 programs across the government are devoted to economic development.
  • The USDA, the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Indian Health Service, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation, HUD, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers all have programs to meet the water needs of the U.S. Mexico border region.
  • Ten agencies across the government and 82 programs deal with teacher effectiveness.

Well, the list goes on and on. So do other GAO studies. One of the most recent studies, published on September 29, 2011, recommended more oversight on U.S. Army equipment. As the draw down in Iraq accelerates, this issue becomes ever more salient. Yet, the GAO concluded, “The Army has not made disposition decisions for most of its tactical nonstandard equipment (i.e., commercially acquired or non-developmental equipment rapidly acquired and fielded outside the normal budgeting and acquisition process), and its disposition process is impaired by a lack of visibility over this equipment and the absence of a focal point to manage this equipment.”

The list of GAO studies and recommendations for greater cost savings and efficiencies is a very, very, very long one. After hours of discussion, however, the Board was hardly discouraged about the state of the federal government. In fact, many of its members, former high-level civilian and military government officials, were impressed by the progress made by the government in eliminating “fraud, waste, and abuse.”

According to a Washington Post poll, 63 percent of Americans think that if only “fraud, waste, and abuse” were eliminated, the budget would be balanced. The CG and his staff agreed that while those ills continued to exist, they continued to decline and were, in fact, only a small part of federal expenditures.

In fact, the CG, who meets periodically with the Comptrollers General of more than 100 other countries, was confident that our federal government is one of the most efficient and effective in the world. About that, there was general agreement.