Coburn to Congress: Look in the mirror for the cause of waste

Thursday - 1/9/2014, 5:49pm EST

Agencies are wasting hundreds of billions of dollars each year because Congress isn't doing its job.

That was the simple message from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) Thursday.

Coburn continued to beat the drum that change must start at home if the government is going to control its spending.

And despite his best efforts to embarrass lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers of Congress, he hasn't succeeded in making much progress.

Coburn said the 2011 Government Accountability Office's report on duplication across government was his first attempt at forcing change. The third edition of the GAO report on duplication is expected to come out this March.

"There's been one piece of legislation that has come out of Congress in four years — it didn't even come out of Congress, it came out of the House that consolidated one of the things that GAO said that needed to be consolidated, called the Supporting Knowledge and Investing in Lifelong Skills Act. It's the only thing that has happened in four years. The problem isn't that we don't know what the problem is. The problem is we don't act on the problem," Coburn said during his testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "It's hard. There's no question. If you talk to the members of the [House Education] and Workforce Committee, it's hard when they consolidated 36 programs into six. It's not easy work. But that bill hasn't even been taken up by the Senate or the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in the Senate. So the problem is us."

Coburn, who is the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said even sequestration didn't force lawmakers to cut or eliminate hundreds of duplicated or outdated programs.

"The problem is us," he said. "We are not acting on the information we have."

GAO found last April that agencies spent $95 billion on 162 areas of duplication across government, including 679 renewable energy programs from 23 different agencies that costs $15 billion to run.

Coburn even praised President Barack Obama for including many of the programs GAO highlighted in his budget request. But he said Congress continues to ignore the overlap.

The White House tried to address program duplication in 2012 with an 11-agency pilotto compare similar programs and determine if they can be merged. The Office of Management and Budget used the pilot to create a governmentwide inventory of programs, which it published on Performance.gov in May.

On top of the GAO report, Coburn also released his annual waste book last month that highlighted about 100 projects worth about $30 billion.

More attention needed

The House committee hearing seems to be its latest attempt to shine more light on the overlapping programs.

Coburn said the first thing that can be done by lawmakers is pay closer attention to the programs they are authorizing and GAO's reports.

Congress also must conduct real oversight hearings and hold agencies accountable for meeting programmatic goals. That is the theory behind the Government Performance and Results Act passed in 1993 and the modernization act of 2010. Under the law, agencies are to determine performance metrics for programs and jointly with Congress ensure those goals are being met.

Coburn said he met with Sen, Susan Collins (R-Maine), the former ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, before the House hearing to get some advice about how to get lawmakers to pay more attention to the duplication problem.

"It is hard work. You have to win over the heart of the committee chairman of jurisdiction and say, 'Won't you do oversight on this? Won't you try to consolidate it?'" Coburn said. "If that doesn't work, what you have to do is embarrass the members of Congress into doing their job. I'm embarrassed that we as members of Congress have allowed this list with the multitude of programs that are on there, with the duplicity in it that we haven't fixed it. We don't have an excuse. We are guilty of not doing our jobs. And the way to turn that around is to start doing it. I understand this committee has jurisdiction to look at it, but you can't change it unless the committees' of jurisdiction act."

He encouraged House members to be "ambassadors" to those separate committees and push them to do the hard work to find savings by eliminating duplication.

Whack-a-mole with waste

House lawmakers are starting to pay more attention to the amount of program overlap.