By Dustin Siggins
The federal government isn’t properly safeguarding taxpayer dollars, from Congress on down, according to two recent government reports.
On December 7, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that “over half of” 24 federal agencies were “noncompliant” with improper payment oversight requirements in 2016 and 2017. Nine of those agencies have been compliant since 2011.
Improper payments officially totaled over $140 billion in 2017. However, American Media Institute concluded the true number is likely much higher. Improper payments are mostly overpayments and are frequently found in federal health care programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
GAO’s report identified many government programs which are not in line with laws designed to improve accountability. Heritage Foundation Research Fellow Rachel Grezsler told AMI that “without consequences, it’s impossible to hold CFOs [Chief Financial Officers] and other federal employees accountable.”
“Noncompliance should be grounds for disciplining or dismissing CFOs,” continued Greszler,” “but in conjunction, CFOs need authority to discipline and dismiss workers below them who they task with carrying out the compliance.”
“Federal employee unions make it nearly impossible to discipline or dismiss federal workers,” said Greszler. Federal employees often make more than their equivalents in the private-sector, especially those with lower or middle levels of education. More than one in three public employees are unionized, which allows them to have greater power when attempting to influence federal employment policies like firing.
Greszler said that there are also a lot of federal employees whose “roles provide the least value to taxpayers. Policymakers should call into question departments such as the EPA, HUD, and Education that 95 percent non-essential positions.”
Poor Oversight Starts at The Top
The agency examination report was published shortly after another devastating GAO report on Congress’ oversight of spending. According to that report, “$3.2 trillion in spending authority and permanent appropriations was reported in fiscal year 2015” – all of which is spending “provided to agencies through laws other than annual appropriations acts or available permanently by law without further legislation.”
In other words: Trillions of taxpayer dollars were spent without annual Congressional oversight. Permanent appropriations were found to be “the primary driver” of an 88 percent increase in spending analyzed in the report since 1994. Most of the permanent appropriations were in Medicare and Social Security spending, as well as interest payments.
Other programs which are not provided annual oversight from Congress are multi-year contracts through the Department of Defense and other agencies. Heritage Foundation budget expert Justin Bogie said in an e-mail that the Department of Transportation and DoD “are the largest utilizers of contract authority in the federal government, which makes since given both agencies use of long-term construction and R&D projects.”
According to GAO Acting Director of Strategic Issues Kris Nguyen, GAO “did not assess Congress’ oversight.” She explained that “while we say in our report that Congress does not review spending authority and permanent appropriations annually…our report did not analyze the type or extent of annual oversight that may occur for annual appropriations.”
Nguyen also noted “that spending authority and permanent appropriations…are subject to congressional oversight at any point in time” and that GAO “did not analyze…congressional oversight that may have been exercised” in years other than 2015.
Heritage Foundation Research Fellow Justin Bogie was more critical. “Congress should get back into a regular cycle of authorizing agencies and programs,” he said. “The authorization process is an opportunity for Congress to carefully review the activities being carried out by federal agencies and determine whether or not they are still fulfilling their original purpose and doing so in an effective and efficient manner.”
“Another way that Congress could have better oversite over agencies funding is to move all but the largest entitlements back to the discretionary side of the budget,” Bogie said. “This would give Congress greater control of the year to year growth in these programs and could also help alleviate the use of…budget gimmicks.”
While a December 14, 2018 Investor’s Business Daily editorial said the GAO report showed 86 percent of federal spending is on autopilot, both Nguyen and Bogie disagreed. The editorial is likely using data on total outlays for FY 2015, which CBO data reports as $3.7 trillion,” said Nguyen. “The numbers in our report are budget authority.”
Bogie explained further. “The $3.2 trillion figure referred to in the GAO report is contract authority and permanent appropriations. This is not the same as what is actually being spent in a given year,” he said. Citing the Congressional Budget Office, Bogie concluded that “at most, about 68 percent of federal spending could have been considered to be on ‘auto-pilot.’”
Bogie described this percentage as “alarming.” He said things may get worse because “interest payments are projected to nearly triple over the next decade and Congress has proven unwilling to control spending growth.”
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