In the recent election, Americans elected a narrowly divided Congress. That means that lawmakers will need to work together on bipartisan legislation if they want to address the nation’s challenges. With the highest inflation in 40 years and ballooning federal debt payments, lawmakers have a responsibility to trim federal spending and correct what the Comptroller General has called the nation’s “unsustainable” fiscal path.
One area should be an obvious priority—requiring federal agencies to answer open watchdog recommendations to achieve taxpayer savings. In fact, this approach to cost-cutting already has strong bipartisan support within the current Democrat-controlled Congress.
In July, the House passed the Improving Government for America’s Taxpayers Act, sponsored by Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) and Rep. William Timmons (R-SC). The bill would require the Government Accountability Office to provide a report to Congress telling lawmakers how long the watchdog’s recommendations have been open and suggesting congressional oversight actions to implement these reforms. The legislation would also require the Comptroller General to estimate how much taxpayers could save if federal agencies answered GAO’s good government recommendations.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) sponsored a companion bill that passed the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in May. Senator Portman recently announced that the legislation was included in the Senate National Defense Authorization Act, suggesting it is on the path to becoming law in 2023.
For the new Congress, focusing congressional oversight and legislative attention on GAO’s nonpartisan reforms to make government more efficient should be high on the to-do list for achieving cost savings. As of November, GAO reports that there are more than 4,700 open recommendations, including 499 “priority recommendations,” which the watchdog agency describes as having the potential to “save large amounts of money” or yield other significant improvements.
Over the past twenty years, GAO estimates that its work has resulted in more than $1.2 trillion in cost savings and more than 26,000 other program improvements. But agencies often take several years to answer GAO’s good government recommendations. Only three out of four of GAO’s reforms are implemented within four years, leaving plenty of room for improvement.
Acting on the thousands of open nonpartisan recommendations to make government work better would have the potential to yield substantial savings with bipartisan support. Authorizing committees should use their oversight and legislative authorities to require agency leaders to act on GAO’s recommendations. Appropriators should use the power of the purse to reduce funding for agencies to encourage more efficiency.
There’s already a model for how focusing more attention on GAO’s reform recommendations can drive substantial savings. A 2010 law requiring GAO to study duplication and overlap across federal programs has resulted in more than $500 billion in taxpayer savings to date.
In addition to nonpartisan watchdog recommendations, Congress can achieve cost savings by ending federal programs that are no longer authorized but continue to receive appropriations. In August, the Congressional Budget Office “found that $461 billion in appropriations for 2022 was associated with 422 expired authorizations of appropriations.” Reauthorizing, reforming, and terminating these programs that continue to receive funding without current congressional authorization could yield substantial savings and update government programs to work better to reflect the nation’s current needs.
As with implementing nonpartisan watchdog recommendations, focusing legislative attention on expired or expiring authorizations of appropriations can be done in a bipartisan manner. The authorizing process in the Senate, for example, would necessarily require bipartisan agreement for most legislation. But the principle that all programs funded by Congress should also be authorized by Congress should be a good starting point for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to work together.
Saving taxpayers tens if not hundreds of billions by trimming waste in the federal budget and reauthorizing expired programs will require members of Congress to do the hard and often underappreciated work of conducting oversight, negotiating and passing legislation, and engaging in the appropriations process to drive efficiencies. But that’s what American voters hired them to do on Election Day.
With existing bipartisan support to leverage nonpartisan watchdog recommendations to cut waste, fraud, and abuse from the federal budget, the next Congress should focus immediate attention on these cost-savings opportunities. For example, the leaders of the next House of Representatives could include new language in the rules package for the 118th requiring committees to focus attention on open watchdog recommendations and expired authorizations.
Some may question whether amending House rules to focus committees’ attention on open watchdog recommendations and expired or expiring authorizations is necessary, since GAO and CBO annually report to Congress on both matters. But House Rules already require committees to submit oversight plans at the beginning of new Congresses. Amending this rule to require Committees’ plans to focus attention on unimplemented recommendations and expired authorizations of appropriations could ensure that committees focus adequate attention on these areas in the 118th Congress and beyond.
Cutting waste, fraud, and abuse and eliminating unauthorized programs alone won’t correct the nation’s fiscal challenges. But it’s a reasonable place to start.
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