Why Congress Should Fully Fund Its Watchdog

An extra $76 million in funding for GAO could yield $7 billion in savings based on recent performance

The lame-duck session is underway. As the clock winds down on the 116th Congress, lawmakers have a busy agenda for its final weeks–from considering a new emergency spending bill to NDAA and a December 11th deadline to pass a new funding measure. 

Avoiding a government shutdown will require Congress to reconcile its spending bills or pass a continuing resolution to punt those decisions into 2021. 

Everyone concerned about the federal government’s deteriorating fiscal condition should pay attention to an often overlooked line item in Congress’s budget: funding for the U.S. Government Accountability Office

GAO is Congress’s watchdog. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro asked Congress for $706 million for the new fiscal year. That would be an increase of $76 million over last year, or a boost of about 12 percent. That proposed budget would fund 3,250 “full time equivalents,” including auditors and experts who do yeoman’s work studying federal programs and advising Congress and the public. 

Facing constrained budgets, Congressional Appropriators are unlikely to fully fund the Comptroller General’s request. The Senate Appropriations Committee’s funding bill for the Legislative Branch includes just $650 million for GAO. The House Appropriations Committee’s bill would provide $664 million.

Facing trillion dollar deficits and an ongoing global pandemic, one might assume that an extra $76 million for government auditors and analysts is a luxury that Congress can’t afford in 2020. But if history is any guide, the extra millions invested in GAO would be some of the best tax dollars that Congress will spend in the coming year. 

Over the past 21 years, GAO’s work has resulted in more than $1.1 trillion in financial benefits for the government and over 25,000 other improvements. That means that every dollar spent on GAO results in a large return-on-investment for dollars saved by the Treasury. Last year, GAO reportedly saved $338 dollars for every dollar invested in its budget. Over the past 21 years, GAO’s lowest ROI in terms of taxpayer savings was $57.  For every year since 2012, GAO’s self-reported ROI has been greater than $100 to $1. 

Based on this recent track record, fully funding GAO’s budget request could result in an extra $7.6 billion in savings next year and perhaps much more. 

For background on this data and GAO’s ROI analysis, please check out my recent report for Lincoln Network, which presents my analysis of GAO’s annual ‘performance and accountability reports’ since FY1999.  Here are a few of the report’s key findings:

  • Over that 21 year period, GAO’s work related to the Department of Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) yielded the most financial benefits ($275 billion and $128 billion, respectively). Much of these savings are due to large defense acquisition programs and curbing improper payments.
  • Since 2011, GAO’s congressionally mandated annual reports examining duplication across federal programs have yielded a total of $429 billion in savings.
  • GAO reports that the four-year implementation rate of its recommendations was 77% as of 2019, which is generally consistent with prior years. The cost to the government of unimplemented or slowly implemented recommendations is unknown.

To be clear, it’s unknown what the exact marginal savings in terms of ROI would be generated by additional appropriations for GAO. For example, based on my research, new funding for GAO would be most efficiently invested in oversight of DOD and the HHS Department or used to track duplication or improper payments. As I discuss in the report, Congress should leverage GAO’s work and return-on-investment.

What’s promising about the Comptroller General’s budget request is that he promised to focus new funding on growing the Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team. Lincoln’s Head of Policy Zach Graves explained why we should be investing in the STAA in Congressional testimony in March.

Saving money by not fully funding the Government Accountability Office would be penny wise and pound foolish. Funds invested in these watchdogs are one of the best investments Congress makes.

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