By MICHAEL SMALLBERG
Yesterday we did a rolling analysis of President Obama's Fiscal Year (FY) 2013 budget request, focusing mainly on our proposed spending cuts for wasteful and unnecessary defense and nuclear weapons-related programs.
Now we turn to the other side of the equation: investing in the watchdogs that save taxpayers money (directly and indirectly) by uncovering waste, fraud, and abuse in the federal government and identifying opportunities for potential savings.
How did those agencies fare in the FY 2013 budget request? Let’s start with the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
GAO's budget by the numbers: FY2011 (actual): $546 million | FY2012 (est.): $511 million | FY2013 (request): $526 million
Analysis: The head of the GAO delivered some sobering news to Congress last week:
By the end of FY 2012, for the first time in over 75 years, GAO’s staffing level will drop below 3,000 staff, resulting in a net reduction of 11 percent in our staff capacity, or 365 people, in only a 2-year period.
By comparison, the GAO had more than 5,300 staffers in FY1992. To counteract this alarming trend, the GAO is requesting an appropriation of $526.2 million for FY2013—a modest 2.9 percent increase over the previous fiscal year.
Some Members of Congress might feel uneasy about increasing agency budgets in a time of fiscal duress. In fact, boosting the GAO’s budget is one of the best investments Congress could make on behalf of taxpayers right now.
Last year, GAO reported that its work yielded $45.7 billion in financial benefits—a return of $81 for every dollar invested in the agency.
It’s also important to remember that the GAO’s work leads to many non-financial benefits, such as improving business processes and management, protecting public safety and security, and improving the government’s oversight of federal oil and gas resources. To cite just one example from last year, the GAO did a groundbreaking audit of the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending during the financial crisis, which peaked at $1 trillion in outstanding loans in late 2008. The GAO recorded over 1,300 non-financial benefits resulting from its work in FY2011.
The GAO’s reports can also lead to important follow-up investigations by Members of Congress, reporters, and watchdog groups like POGO.
Even budget hawks like Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) have opposed cutting GAO’s budget, recognizing that the agency plays a vital role in protecting taxpayers and holding the government accountable:
The irony is Congress needs GAO’s assistance now more than ever. If the mission of GAO is compromised by excessive cuts, where else can Congress turn to find unbiased data to improve programs and save money?
Quite frankly, the reason the guidance of GAO is so important at this time is because Congress has increasingly ignored its own duties to oversee the functions of government. Even with a shrinking budget, GAO has continued to produce nearly 1,000 reports a year recommending billions of dollars in savings. By way of comparison, there has been a precipitous decline in congressional hearings despite steady spending increases for both the House of Representatives and the Senate. And as the overall federal budget increased 100 percent between 1992 and 2007, GAO’s budget was slashed by more than 20 percent.
The Obama Administration has taken a step in the right direction by seeking to restore GAO’s funding. Now it’s time for Congress to do its part. Click here to tell your Members of Congress to invest in government oversight by supporting increased funding for the GAO.
Michael Smallberg is a POGO investigator.
Image via [F]oxymoron.