Congress Has Had It Up to Here With Agencies Not Taking Its Spending Advice

February 9, 2019

By John M. Donnelly

WASHINGTON — Congress is increasingly trying to force federal departments, especially the Pentagon, to quit disregarding audit recommendations on how to get more bang for billions of dollars in taxpayer bucks.

Starting next year, in fact, federal agencies will have to explain to Congress why they are letting thousands of good ideas gather dust.

Across the government, departments and agencies had not implemented more than 15,000 proposals from their inspectors general that could save $87 billion — some 38 percent of that money at the Pentagon, according to a 2016 report from two Senate committees, Judiciary and Homeland Security.

Two years later, it turns out, the Defense Department still leads the way in shelving auditors’ ideas.

The Defense Department has more unheeded audit recommendations than any other agency, according to the Government Accountability Office. The Pentagon has failed to implement more than half the 1,122 recommendations that GAO has put forth to improve defense programs since fiscal 2014, the auditors told the Armed Services Committees in a report this week.

In fairness, a minority of the GAO’s Defense Department recommendations may have gone unimplemented because military officials have not had time to take action on the more recently released recommendations.

However, nearly a quarter of the GAO’s defense recommendations that were at least four years old have not been heeded, this week’s report says.

The GAO’s recommendations cover a broad range of Pentagon programs. These include ways to improve the quality of Navy ships and to reduce the likelihood of at-sea collisions. They also comprise ways to set strategies for combating sexual harassment, to improve military preparedness and to enhance decision-making on weapon contracts.

The Defense Department “has made progress in implementing these recommendations, but we would like DOD leadership to place more emphasis on taking the actions we’ve recommended, especially in the areas that we designate as high priority, such as rebuilding readiness and improving contract and acquisition management,” said GAO’s Elizabeth Field, the lead author of this week’s report, in a statement to CQ.

GAO recommendations for other agencies are no less serious. They have covered everything from improving veterans access to medical care to shoring up safety by improving training in the State Department.

“It’s unacceptable that federal agencies ignore thousands of recommendations on how to become more efficient and save taxpayer dollars,” Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., told CQ in a statement.

President Donald Trump signed into law last month a measure written by Walker and others that will require agencies to explain their inattention on each of the unheeded recommendations, whether from the GAO or the IG.

The first such documentation will have to be submitted next year along with the fiscal 2021 budget request, the law says.

Both the House and Senate passed companion versions of the measure last year with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Walker sponsored the House measure, and the chief Senate proponents were Indiana Republican Todd Young and Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren, who is now running for her party’s presidential nomination in 2020.

The bill was dubbed the Good Accounting Obligation In Government, or GAO IG, Act.

The idea behind the law is to force agencies to explain their inactions. That could shame officials into implementing changes they would otherwise resist. And it will give Congress more information to enable sound legislating, the law’s authors told CQ in separate statements on Thursday.

Young said the law “ensures that these important cost-saving measures are no longer overlooked and Congress can do its proper job of oversight.”

Warren said the upshot will be “making government work better for every American.”

Walker said it will push agencies toward “accountability and improvement.”

Nevertheless, while forcing documentation of how agencies are failing to implement solutions to many of their problems may be necessary, it is probably not sufficient to ensure the fixes are implemented, some taxpayer advocates say.

Without congressional follow-up, the new law could merely create a “paper-shuffling exercise” at the Pentagon and elsewhere, says Mandy Smithberger, an analyst with the Project on Government Oversight.

“It’s important to track when the Pentagon rejects the advice of independent auditors and misses opportunities to better manage our national security and taxpayer dollars, but Congress should step up and hold the department accountable, including withholding budget dollars when appropriate,” Smithberger said.

This week’s GAO assessment for the Armed Services Committee was required by the conference report accompanying the fiscal 2018 defense authorization law.

The GAO’s report said that 595 of the 1,122 recommendations for defense programs issued since fiscal 2014 were not implemented, or just over half of them.

That was at least a slight improvement over the previous year, GAO said.

The GAO considered 68 of these recommendations to be “priority” proposals. Yet nearly half of even those more important solutions were also unimplemented.

The Defense Department is working to improve its follow-up on GAO recommendations, the GAO auditors told the Armed Services panels.

In particular, Pentagon offices affected by audits are required to document how they plan to take corrective action in response to GAO audits. And senior leaders have to update the Pentagon’s assistant deputy chief management officer on the progress.

“We look forward to working collaboratively with our GAO counterparts to continue to aggressively implement GAO recommendations,” said Karen Finnegan Meyers, an official with the Pentagon’s Washington Headquarters Service, in a Jan. 25 letter to GAO that was included in the new report.

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