Bloomberg News

Cutting U.S. Watchdog Budget Will Cost More Than It Saves: View

December 01, 2011

Nov. 21 (Bloomberg) -- Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn has built his career on an aggressive, occasionally egregious, insistence on federal spending cuts. As a member of the Senate’s Gang of Six, he grew impatient with the search for $4 trillion in deficit reduction over a decade and produced his own plan worth $9 trillion, including large cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and the Pentagon.

So last week -- just as the national debt was surpassing $15 trillion -- when Coburn demanded robust funding for a 3,350- employee government bureaucracy, we took note.

The Republican’s 29-page report is a rousing defense of the Government Accountability Office, which both House and Senate appropriators have targeted for at least a 6 percent budget cut next year. The GAO is a nonpartisan watchdog that, since its founding in 1921, has saved U.S. taxpayers exponentially more than its cumulative budgets have cost. In congressional testimony this year, Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, who leads the GAO, said that for every dollar spent on the agency last year, GAO produced $87 in financial benefits.

Accepting the comptroller general’s math requires no great leap of faith. Over the years, GAO investigators, auditors and accountants have exposed countless boondoggles. In just one recent example, the GAO found problems with the Army’s Future Combat System Manned Ground Vehicle and encouraged the Defense Department to kill the program, saving $11 billion. A single 2011 GAO report -- a single report! -- identified hundreds of billions that could be saved by eliminating duplication in federal programs. That alone represents a rich return on the agency’s $571 million budget -- or would if Congress were sufficiently functional to enact the changes.

In addition to issuing almost 1,000 reports a year to Congress, including recommendations on everything from Medicare savings to efficiencies in civil debt collection, the agency provides congressional committees with expert testimony. It also gets its hands dirty by burrowing within government agencies, reading the fine print on consulting contracts to ferret out waste, fraud and abuse -- regardless of which party is in power.

The GAO is not flawless. But over a long and distinguished history it has earned its stripes, and certainly its budget. Careful auditing and analysis of government programs cannot be done on the cheap. GAO is already doing more with less; between 1992 and 2007, the size of the federal budget doubled while GAO’s was cut more than 20 percent. Its staff is not only smaller than it was in 1992, it’s a fraction of the size it was during World War II. Cutting its budget further is no way to save money; in fact, it’s false economy.

--Editors: Francis Wilkinson, David Shipley

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To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.


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