By Tom Coburn

How Many Agencies Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb?* Everything the government is doing once it is likely doing twice or three times and often not very well.

How Many Agencies Does It Take by Tom Coburn

February 24th, 2015

There are 2,621,514 goats in the United States. With its annual goat census the Department of Agriculture counts every single goat in the country. Yet, the agency cannot provide the number of government programs it administers.

In fact, there is not one single listing of all government programs anywhere. The result is Congress and the President continue to create new programs that overlap other government efforts.

Five years ago, Congress passed legislation requiring the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to produce an annual review of duplicative federal programs. To date, GAO’s duplication reports have exposed 188 areas of unnecessary duplication and potential cost savings, revealing more than 1,100 duplicative federal programs that cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars every year.

Whether carrying out similar missions or funding similar projects, everything the government is doing once it is likely doing twice or three times and often not very well.

For example, there are 679 renewable energy initiatives at 23 different federal agencies, costing taxpayers $15 billion. Similarly, there are at least 253 crime prevention programs at the Department of Justice, costing nearly $4 billion, more than 20 STEM programs at 13 agencies costing $3.1 billion, and nearly 160 defense foreign-language contracting programs.

The list goes on. The government runs at least 100 surface transportation programs, 88 economic development programs, 82 teacher quality programs, 56 financial literacy programs; at least 47 job training programs, and 20 homelessness prevention and assistance programs, just to name a few.

In many cases, taxpayers are paying twice the cost- or more- for a single project. The result is higher costs and less funding for other efforts. For example, there is less money available for scientific research because the government is paying twice for the very same research in some cases. Nearly $70 million in duplicative grants were awarded to double dipping researchers, siphoning money from the National Institutes of Health, DOD, the National Science Foundation and others, according to a study published in the journal Nature.

In another case, the government unnecessarily paid nearly $13 billion in overlapping payments for health services for veterans who were enrolled in multiple federal health programs, revealed the Journal of the American Medical Association.

By simply consolidating duplicated programs, the government could save $200 billion a year.

The blame for this maze of governments does not rest on one party or the other — it lies with both. Duplication has been created by the ruling class of career politicians seeking to slap short-term fixes on problems in order to claim credit at home and recognition in Washington.

Though the Executive Branch is not without fault, Congress is the main offender. Congress sets the budget, passes the appropriations bills and authorizes new activities at the federal agencies. Congress refuses to apply metrics and standards to the programs it creates and ignores its duty to conduct oversight.

Even worse, Congress chose to remain uninformed about existing efforts before creating new ones. Despite the thousands of existing federal programs on the books, nearly every passing week Congress creates more programs and federal efforts, piling new initiatives on top of the old ones, which were created on top of even older programs.

One of the first acts of the new Republican majority this year was to pass a bill creating new duplicative veteran’s programs, which will be run by the same bureaucrats failing to deliver the assistance already promised by exiting programs.

Congress continues to shirk its duty to address even blatant areas of waste and mismanagement of taxpayer funding.

Everything the government is doing once it is likely doing twice or three times and often not very well.

One example of ludicrous duplication highlighted by the GAO is the Department of Commerce’s National Technical Information Services (NTIS). Home to nearly three million documents, the NTIS is tasked with collecting and distributing government funded reports. The office, established sixty-five years ago in 1950, is a vestige of an era before the Internet and its services are no longer needed. Today, anyone with an iPhone can easily access nearly all documents distributed by NTIS. In fact, GAO found that NTIS’ reports can be found online, stating, “The source that most often had the reports GAO was searching for was another website located at Google.com.” Yet Congress refuses to eliminate the office.

GAO’s reports have outlined more than $200 billion in budgetary savings by simply consolidating duplicative programs, and are a testament to failed congressional efforts of oversight and a reminder Congress continues to shirk its duty to address even blatant areas of waste and mismanagement of taxpayer funding.

THE SOLUTION

The new majority should require every committee in Congress to begin addressing the areas of duplication in their jurisdiction and putting forth creative and commonsense proposals to consolidate, streamline, eliminate, downsize, and make the government more efficient. It is time to do more with less, not less with more.

Turning GAO’s ready-made list of cuts into savings is one of the best ways Congress can regain the trust and confidence of the American people. No American – regardless of party or ideology – wants to see their tax dollars fund unnecessary duplication and bloat, particularly when real incomes have flat-lined and our economy is being dragged down by an $18 trillion debt.

The ‘Let Me Google That For You Act’ would cut the service that sells government reports already online for free.

Congress should also immediately pass two bipartisan bills based on GAO’s recommendations.

The Let Me Google That For You Act would eliminate the National Technical Information Service that sells government reports already available online for free.

The Taxpayers Right to Know Act, introduced by Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), would require federal agencies to provide taxpayers with an annual report card for each of its programs and disclose overlap and performance measures. Yet this bill has been blocked by Minority Leader Harry Reid and the Office of Management and budget, who contend it is difficult to define what a federal program is. So while the UDSA can count goats, the OMB is unable to count federal programs.

Congress should also pass The Let Me Google That For You Act, which had bipartisan support in the previous Congress, and would eliminate the National Technical Information Service that sells government reports already available online for free.

GAO’s work presents Washington with literally hundreds of options for working together in a bipartisan way to create a more efficient government by eliminating duplicative federal programs, potentially saving hundreds of billions of dollars.

Before Congress creates another well-intentioned sounding program, taxpayers should ask, ‘Does a program like this already exist?’ The problem is no one in Washington may know the answer.

*Answer: One to screw it in, up to 1100 to decide the wattage, the style, whether it’s incandescent halogen, tungsten, low voltage, xenon; high intensity metal halide, high pressure sodium, low-pressure sodium, mercury vapor; LED; or compact fluorescent.

Portions of this were previously included in Senator Coburn’s written testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, during the February 28, 2012 hearing, “Government 2.0: GAO Unveils New Duplicative Program Report”