Why taxpayers should support expanding the GAO

The Hill

Congress approved $1.4 trillion in new spending last week to avoid another government shutdown over the holidays. Taxpayers are right to be wary whenever Congress pulls out its checkbook. But when it comes to one important line-item, budget hawks should be rooting for more funding, not less.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) serves as Congress’s watchdog and plays a critical role in holding the federal government accountable to the American people. In November, the comptroller general issued the annual Performance and Accountability Report for FY2019, which found that GAO’s work, “yielded a record $214.7 billion in financial benefits — a return of about $338 for every dollar invested in GAO.”

Congress has provided $630 million in new funding for GAO — a $40 million increase. This new spending will help support the comptroller general’s efforts to modernize oversight and improve Congress’s ability to anticipate and address critical challenges. 

Since 2014, GAO’s work has produced $340 billion in savings and more than 6,400 improvements in program and operational improvements across the government, according to the comptroller general’s February testimony before Congress.

In addition to its traditional auditing work, GAO recently established a science, technology, assessment, and analytics (STAA) team. The STAA team is focused on enhancing Congress’s capacity to assess emerging technologies, auditing federal science and technology programs, and using advanced analytics to improve auditing.

Earlier this month, Dr. Timothy M. Persons, GAO’s chief scientist and managing director of science, technology assessment, and analytics, testified that, “GAO will continue to build its capacity to respond to congressional demand. STAA’s current staff level is about one-half of what was outlined in the April 2019 plan submitted to Congress.”

Besides saving taxpayers money in the long run, increasing appropriations for the GAO – and investing new resources in the STAA team, in particular – will improve Congress’s ability to tackle the challenges and opportunities posed by modern science and technology, rather than leaving such matters to executive agencies.

For example, the STAA team recently hired a chief data scientist, who is charged with using data analytics to support existing audit capabilities, including for upcoming reviews of improper payments across government agencies. GAO also created a Center for Strategic Foresight in 2018 focused on “identifying, monitoring, and analyzing emerging issues facing policymakers.”

First, enhancing auditing through advanced analytics will improve Congress’s ability to prevent waste, fraud and abuse — GAO’s bread and butter. But increasing GAO’s ability to provide technical services will also strengthen Congress’s ability to conduct oversight of the many executive agencies that have jurisdiction over technical matters. 

Lacking sufficient technical expertise, Congress has historically tended to defer to executive agencies. This, in turn, leaves Congress ill-equipped to grapple with many of the most pressing issues that confront it, from cybersecurity and weapons development to artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, to name only a few. As a result, Congress becomes a mere “rubber stamp… of the administrative branch of government,” as one member memorably put it, rather than a coequal branch of government.

Second, improving Congress’s technical capability can also help it to anticipate changes in science and technology. Importantly, the STAA team is positioned to provide key support to Congress and federal agencies to address key high-risk areas, such as protecting national security technology. 

Enhancing GAO’s science and technology capabilities complements the House of Representatives’ Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress’s bipartisan and unanimous recommendation for “reestablishing and restructuring an improved Office of Technology Assessment.” A well-resourced Government Accountability Office STAA team need not be a replacement for recreating and modernizing the Office of Technology Assessment, which many members have advocated for. In fact, both STAA and OTA could mutually support the legislative branch’s efforts to improve its oversight of the federal government and address the nation’s science and technology challenges.

It may seem counterintuitive to ask fiscal conservatives to support expanding Congress’s capabilities, especially at a time when resources are scarce and the national debt is $23 trillion. But investing in GAO will yield long-term savings and better equip the Constitution’s first branch to do its job. 

Garrett Johnson is co-founder and executive director of Lincoln Network. M. Anthony Mills is director of science policy at the R Street Institute.

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