January 03, 2023

OPINION: 4,800 ways to improve government

As the 118th Congress begins, Americans may be wondering what, if anything, the legislative branch will accomplish in 2023. For a dose of optimism, they should look to the recently enacted National Defense Authorization Act, which included a bipartisan measure providing a blueprint for good government reforms in the 118th Congress. 

The Improving Government for America’s Taxpayers Act requires the comptroller general to provide an annual report to Congress with a streamlined list of open recommendations from Congress’s watchdog, the Government Accountability Office. The law, which was sponsored by Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), William Timmons (R-S.C.), Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and Gary Peters (D-Mich.), requires the comptroller general to tell Congress how long priority recommendations have been open and provide estimates of potential savings. 

It was already clear that GAO’s work was a great investment in good government: the office has resulted in an estimated $1.3 trillion in savings since 2002, and $55.6 billion in 2022. With a budget of just $722 million, this amounts to a return on investment of $74 for each dollar Congress spent on its watchdog. 

But federal agencies and Congress waste billions of dollars every year by failing to act on GAO’s recommendations. Only 77 percent of GAO’s recommendations are implemented within four years. More than 4,800 recommendations remain open, including 490 “priority recommendations” that “can save large amounts of money.” Fifty recommendations have been open for more than 12 years. If Congress and federal agencies acted on these good government reforms in a timely manner, taxpayers could save tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars.

Now, thanks to new nonpublic data we obtained from GAO through an open records request, we have a clearer picture than ever of the office’s past and potential achievements. Agency oversight has led to substantial savings, but far more could be done. For example, GAO’s oversight of the Department of Defense has resulted in $440 billion in savings since 2002, but 639 recommendations for the Pentagon remain open, including 52 priority recommendations. 

Other major savings have included more than $250 billion from oversight of the Department of Health and Human Services, which still has 151 open recommendations, and more than $100 billion from the Treasury Department, which has 95 open recommendations.

These outstanding recommendations aren’t controversial austerity measures, but rather commonsense reforms to get the federal government working more smoothly. One area ripe for reform, for example, is improper payments, which have cost federal agencies nearly $250 billion this year, according to the Office of Management and Budget. GAO has more than 100 open recommendations to prevent misspending. 

Now, with the streamlined reporting and savings estimates mandated by the Improving Government for America’s Taxpayers Act, responsibility falls on congressional committees, which can use oversight hearings and legislation to require agencies to implement good government reforms. As Kilmer reasoned, “The folks at the Government Accountability Office work tirelessly to improve efficiency and save taxpayer dollars. But the GAO often makes recommendations that are never implemented. With the passage of the Improving Government for America’s Taxpayers Act, Congress will be better able to act on GAO recommendations—and to make government work better.”

Portman similarly told us, “Increasing transparency and visibility into the Government Accountability Office recommendations will make our government work better for all Americans—by saving money, reducing fraud, and increasing efficiency. This is good, commonsense legislation that will help members of Congress serve their constituents more effectively.”

Congressional leaders can encourage committees to focus on implementing watchdog recommendations in the 118th Congress. For example, the House of Representatives’ current rules require committees to prepare oversight plans, with bipartisan input, by March 1 to organize committees’ efforts. The House should amend this rule so that committees’ oversight plans must include reviewing open watchdog recommendations and taking actions to require federal agencies to implement them.

While partisan divisions will continue in the 118th Congress, following GAO’s recommendations offers a strong bipartisan opportunity for reform. As Americans realize the need to get their finances in order amid fears of a looming recession, we ought to demand the same from our government. 

By:  Dan Lips and Robert Bellafiore
Source: The Hill