By TJ Kennedy
The United States spends enormous amounts of taxpayer money to accomplish its goals. However, only some programs which government creates are accountable to determine if they’re actually fulfilling their purpose. Part of this is due to the nature of the Government Accountability Agency (GAO) and part of it is due to the unknown number of government programs that exist. An enforcement of the law to create a list of all government programs and a subsequent law for the GAO to review all those programs would ensure that taxpayer money isn’t wasted.
The GAO is a non-partisan office designed to evaluate and audit governmental agencies and programs. One of the few agencies under the control of Congress, the GAO provides reports and recommendations to improve current programs’ effectiveness and eliminate waste and fraud. For a number of years, the GAO has saved the federal government billions of dollars, offered counsel in hundreds of legal decisions, and implemented general effectiveness improvements as shown in Table 1 below.
Table 1: 2020 Accomplishments of the GAO
Source: GAO. | GAO-21-4SP
While the GAO is extremely effective, it is nonetheless inhibited by two factors: the reliance on requests by Congressional members, and the lack of clarity of government programs.
“Requests for GAO reports must come from congressional committees, subcommittees, or Members of Congress,” GAO’s instructions dictate (“For Congress”). In other words, the only time GAO issues reports is when Congress asks for it. While Congress gives GAO plenty of work – 586 reports were given in 2020 alone (“Performance and Accountability Report Fiscal Year 2020”) – that doesn’t mean the GAO is evaluating all programs that the government runs. Congress has incentives to ask for reports about pressing issues, causing them to neglect some programs that may be inefficient or useless.
The other issue is that Congress and the GAO are inherently limited by what they know to review. For any programs that Congresspeople don’t know exist, there is no way to request the GAO to look into it. Currently, no one actually knows exactly how many governmental programs exist (Lautz, 2019). With over 3,900 bills of various sizes passed since 2001 alone (“Statistics and Historical Comparison”), there’s been no clear record of what programs have been created or abolished. Though Congress passed the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) in 2010 requiring the Office of Management and Budget to create a single, comprehensive list of federal programs by October 2012, the list has yet to materialize (“GPRA Modernization Act of 2010”). Without a knowledge of what programs exist, taxpayer dollars can be continually spent on wasteful programs.
The solution is to enforce the GPRA and pass a law that enables the GAO to evaluate every program regardless of Congressional request. As the ones with “power over the purse” (Madison, 1788), Congress has both a right and a duty to know exactly how that money is being spent. Without that clear list, there is no way for the government to know if it is spending taxpayer money wisely.
Though the executive branch has yet to enforce the GPRA, a new addendum might make the law a reality. An included phrase stipulating a freeze of all executive agencies unless a list is created would properly incentivize the executive branch to follow the legislation. The punishment is not meant to censure the executive branch but would simply provide the necessary motivation for it to follow federal law. Though the best incentive can be debated, some definitive action needs to be taken to guarantee the list’s creation.
However, creating the list is only the first step. After it’s creation, a careful review of each program is then required. While Congress should still be allowed to request specialized reports from the GAO, expanding and mandating the GAO to automatically assess all programs on the comprehensive list would ensure that no stone goes unturned in the quest for governmental efficiency.
This new mandate would naturally require a new law and additional funding to the GAO, but the benefits of doing so would far outweigh the costs. For an organization as efficient and nonpartisan as the GAO, having the authority and responsibility to review all government programs would enable lawmakers to adequately understand what their constituents’ dollars are being used for (Braun et al, 2019). Money could then be allocated toward programs that are actually effective or could be returned to the people through lower taxes, ensuring that the government fulfills its duty to help the American people.
Braun, Mike, et al. Received by Mick Mulvaney, United States Senate, 15 July 2019, www.budget.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/2019-0716%20Ltr%20to%20OMB%20re%20Program%20Inventory.pdf. Accessed 5 April 2021.
“For Congress.” U.S. Government Accountability Office, www.gao.gov/about/what-gao-does/for-congress. Accessed 5 April 2021.
James Madison, Federalist No.58, in The Federalist Papers, ed. Clinton Rossiter (New York: New American Library, 1961), pg 225-228.
Lautz, Andrew. “How Many Federal Government Programs Are There?” National Taxpayers Union, 22 July 2019, www.ntu.org/publications/detail/how-many-federal-government-programs-are-there. Accessed 5 April 2021.
“Performance and Accountability Report Fiscal Year 2020.” U.S. Government Accountability Office, 21 Jan. 2021, www.gao.gov/products/gao-21-4sp. Accessed 5 April 2021.
“Statistics and Historical Comparison.” GovTrack.us, Civic Impulse, LLC, www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/statistics. Accessed 5 April 2021.
U.S. Congress, “GPRA Modernization Act of 2010.” P.L. 111-352.