Making Government Work Must Start With Cutting Federal Waste

Today, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its biennial high risk list, an essential Congressional oversight tool that highlights 32 mismanaged government programs that are wasting taxpayer money. This year’s high risk list includes new areas vulnerable to waste, fraud and abuse, including the 2020 Decennial Census, U.S. Government Environmental liabilities — which are estimated to cost $447 million — and federal Indian education, health and energy programs that are failing to provide adequate services to tribes.

In the report, the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) is faulted, again, for not conducting annual safety inspections of its schools. At a Senate committee hearing last September, I questioned Obama Administration officials for failing to routinely inspect Arizona’s 19 BIE schools, some of which had not been visited in 10 years. The BIE oversees 44,000 students in 185 elementary and secondary schools around the country. GAO also flagged the Indian Health Service (IHS) for not implementing agency-wide standards for tracking and reducing patient wait times. Some Native Americans are forced to wait three to four months to see an IHS doctor.

Not surprisingly, the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) maintained its position on the GAO high risk list. Despite the VA budget nearly tripling over the last decade, the GAO remains ‘concerned about the VA’s ability to ensure its resources are being used cost-effectively and efficiently to improve veterans’ timely access to health care, and to ensure the quality and safety of that care.’ This alarming report underscores the VA’s inability to meet its core mission and why Congress must act to continue to allow every veteran to have a choice in their care.

Also included in the high risk list are several programs administered by the Department of Defense (DOD) — the single largest buyer of goods and services in the federal government, including IT systems, particularly business systems, weapon systems, subsystems and components. As Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I included language in the National Defense Authorization Acts for Fiscal Years 2016 and 2017 (NDAA) calling for sweeping acquisition reform intended to address many of the challenges GAO has reported over the past decade. In addition, the NDAA addressed the role of the DOD Chief Management Officer and included provisions that will require DOD to rethink how it is organized and the processes it uses to effectively acquire and modernize its business and weapons systems.

There is much more work that needs to be done at DOD, especially in the financial management of the Department as it struggles to become auditable. It has been two decades since a law was passed requiring federal agencies to perform annual financial audits; yet the Department of Defense, I’m sad to say, is one of the remaining holdouts in achieving that goal. Moving forward, I am committed to working with the Department and GAO to improve the way the Pentagon does business and ensure that vital defense dollars go to our national security priorities.

I am grateful for GAO’s efforts to protect the American taxpayer from waste, fraud, and abuse. With our country drowning in $20 trillion in debt and growing at a rate of over half-a-trillion dollars a year, Congress must review each one of the federal programs that are designated high risk as well as the hundreds of other recommendations GAO has made to improve the management of these programs. It’s an essential step in restoring the public’s trust in government and to our long-term economic future.