'More intense' high-risk oversight planned

Thursday - 2/17/2011, 7:25am EST

WFED's Jason Miller

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Agencies should expect a different type of oversight in the 112th Congress. Lawmakers say the Government Accountability Office's High Risk List not only gives them a roadmap by which to plan hearings, but demonstrates just what it takes to reform long-standing governmentwide problems.

"We will be asking these various agencies 'how long is it going to take you to straighten up and fly right?'" said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "And then what we want them to tell us is when they will be able to do it and then we will bring them back into the committee and say 'have you done it?'"

GAO released its bi-annual list Wednesday detailing 30 programs that are in trouble. The list includes many of the problematic programs have been at risk for more than a decade. Of the 30 programs, only one is new, the Interior Department's management of oil and gas resources. and 13 have been on the list for at least 10 years.

GAO removed two programs this year. The Defense Department has made enough progress on issuing security clearances that auditors say it's out of trouble. And GAO said the 2010 Census finished up last year ahead of schedule and removed it as well.

"There needs to be a fundamental reexamination of the approach to taking the census," said Gene Dodaro, the U.S. Comptroller General and head of GAO during a press conference on Capitol Hill Wednesday. "The 2020 Census is a concern. We recommend the bureau puts together a comprehensive plan and they are undertaking that."

He said the key to getting programs off the list is sustained congressional oversight and focused attention at the agency level.

Dodaro said House and Senate committees held more than 12 hearings on the 2010 census and the DoD personnel security clearance program combined since 2008 and 2005, respectively, when GAO put these issues on the high-risk list.

"This is sustained attention and has held people accountable," he said. "Agencies have elevated top level attention and that is pivotal. In the security clearance area, for example, DoD, OMB, OPM and ODNI have all focused and the committee has focused to bring action to this area."

And lawmakers are looking at DoD's success as the model for the current set of troubled programs.

"The high risk list we think of as a valuable tool," said Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia. "A tool to help us focus on particular issues our government faces. We have done that over the years."

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said while the list is too big to focus on all the issues, the biggest priorities will be get "more intense" scrutiny.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said she will focus like a laser on how best to remove these long-standing troubled programs.

In fact, Collins said she plans on introducing legislation to address two High Risk List issues. She said the only way the Postal Service will become financially viable is through legislation. She also said she plans to reintroduce the cybersecurity bill this week to improve the Federal Information Security Management Act and make other significant changes.

"The size of the deficit makes aggressive oversight even more important than it's ever been," Collins said. "I've learned there needs to have sustained oversight. One of the lessons is even though you can make gains, unless you keep sustained oversight going of these programs, they tend to fall back on and end up back on the list again."

And Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the lack of progress is disappointing.

"Again this year, only 21 have ever been removed of the original 54 on the list," Issa said. "And today, the new list represents 83 percent of the total Executive branch spending. So although not everyone is on the list, for all practical purposes, all the real money is on the list."

A committee spokesman for the majority said the focus is oversight that will lead to reform.

"Whether it is a legislative or an administrative fix, the entire point of the work they are doing is to facilitate reform," said the spokesman. "The problems identified by the GAO High Risk list must be tackled, and Chairman Issa approaches his job with nothing less than the goal of ensuring every taxpayer dollar is well spent."

An audio podcast of the report is available from the GAO by clicking here

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