WASHINGTON — A new government report on duplication and fragmentation in federal programs can read like a book of "screw-in-a-light-bulb" jokes.
It takes 10 different offices at the Department of Health and Human Services to run programs addressing AIDS in minority communities. Autism research is spread out over 11 different agencies. Eight agencies at the Defense Department are looking for prisoners of war and missing in action. And Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado has eight different satellite control centers to control 10 satellite programs.
The report, by the non-partisan Government Accountability Office, identifies 26 new areas where federal government programs are fragmented, duplicative, overlapping or just inefficient. Add that to the 162 areas identified in past reports, and Congress has a road map for saving tens of billions of dollars a year.
"Turning this ready-made list of cuts into savings is one of the best ways Congress can regain the trust and confidence of the American people," said Tom Coburn, who wrote the legislation requiring the annual report. "At the end of the day, there are no shortcuts around the hard work of oversight and identifying and eliminating waste."
The duplication reports are now in their fourth year, but Congress has been slow to act. The Obama administration has at least partly implemented 83% of GAO's recommendations, while Congress has taken up 52%, said Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, who will testify about the GAO's findings Tuesday at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
It's impossible to account for how much money is wasted through duplication, in part because the government doesn't keep track of which programs each agency is responsible for, according to Dodaro's prepared testimony.
"One of the most troubling things in GAO's report is the number of agencies that have no idea just how much taxpayer money they are spending on their programs," said House Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif. He's sponsored legislation, the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, that would require the government to better track spending data from Congress to an agency to its ultimate recipient. The bill passed the House 388-1 last year and is awaiting a vote in the Senate.
Agencies often dispute that duplication in their programs is wasteful. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services defended its management of autism research, saying scientific endeavors "are not linear undertakings" and often require a multidisciplinary approach. The various minority AIDS programs are tailored to specific high-risk communities.
The White House noted that President Obama's 2015 budget proposed cutting or consolidating 136 programs. And he's asked Congress for fast-track authority to reorganize the federal government.
"Many of GAO's recommendations deal with some of the most complex and challenging areas across the federal government," said Beth Cobert, the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, in a statement. "Fully addressing them is a long-term process that in many cases will take years to implement."
Last year, the GAO reported that two main Pentagon groups responsible for POW/MIA issues were "unable to resolve disputes" about who was responsible for what. The Life Science Laboratory, for example, complained that investigators for the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command were deliberately trying to exclude the lab from identifying remains unless they were from the Vietnam War.
But it wasn't until last month, when National Public Radio detailed how slow and bureaucratic the search for remains is, that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered that POW/MIA efforts be streamlined into a single Pentagon office.