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Report Slams Congress For Attacking Its Own Budget-Saving Watchdog

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TOM COBURN
Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) discusses budget cuts in July. | Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Congress must have something against good advice that saves the government tens of billions of dollars every year, Sen. Tom Coburn suggests in a scathing new report.

The report, which is expected to be released Wednesday, accuses Congress of a decades-long campaign to whittle away at the Government Accountability Office and its ability to do effective oversight investigations -- even as Congress is doing less and less oversight of its own and is stymied in its own efforts to save money.

The latest evidence, the report says, is in the budget proposals of both the House and Senate appropriations committees, which seek 6.4 percent and 7.6 percent cuts to the agency, respectively.

"The irony is Congress needs GAO's assistance now more than ever," says the Oklahoma Republican's study, entitled "Shooting The Messenger: Congress Targets The Taxpayers' Watchdog." "If the mission of GAO is compromised by excessive cuts, where else can Congress turn to find unbiased data to improve programs and save money?"

With the deficit-cutting super committee careening toward failure, and with what Coburn sees as Congress' dismal track record and few other good sources for advice, his report argues that taxpayers cannot count on lawmakers to fill the gap.

"Congress has proved incapable of finding answers to the debt crisis and now it is threatening to muzzle those who can," the report contends. "It has failed to pass a budget. It has ignored the recommendations of the president's deficit commission, and now it is considering cuts that could very well hobble the one agency that members of both parties have long trusted for thoughtful recommendations."

For Coburn, generally a budget hawk, the problem is not just the current proposed cuts, but a long pattern that has seen the agency's budget slashed by 20 percent between the 1990s and 2010, while the overall congressional budget ballooned almost 100 percent, from $1.2 billion to nearly $2.3 billion, the report says.

And while the GAO's staff has been cut repeatedly, falling by more than 2,100 workers from 1992 to the present, Congress has fattened up on staff. Between 2000 and 2009, House staffers jumped by 9 percent to 9,808, the report says. The Senate added even more, growing 24 percent to 6,099 workers from 2001 to 2010.

To be sure, staff cuts and budget reductions can be useful, and former GAO director David Walker told HuffPost in September that many of the cuts he oversaw in the Bush administration were healthy. But he also cautioned against indiscriminate slashing.

A GOP aide who discussed the situation on background because budget negotiations are still occurring, said congressional appropriators are well aware of GAO's value, but that all agencies have to bear the brunt of cuts -- and they can.

"It's a federal bureaucracy. To say that there is no waste in a federal bureaucracy is just false," the aide argued. "We don't feel a cut of this size will harm their ability to do their job."

The staffer also pointed to the fact that Congress did trim its own budget this year and is planning to do more next year. "It's not like we're not practicing what we preach," the aide said.

Coburn acknowledges Congress' recent relative thriftiness, but taken over the longer term, he doesn't think the lawmakers' sacrifices come close to the decades-long diminution of the GAO.

And in spite of the cuts, the report notes, the GAO has managed to save the feds billions -- $51 billion last year, $45 billion the year before that, and $61 billion in 2008. In fact, the agency estimates it saves about $87 for each dollar it spends, although the GOP aide suggested the agency's numbers were not necessarily trustworthy when analyzing itself.

Still, the report points to some concrete examples, such as a widely praised study the GAO did in the spring spotlighting potentially hundreds of billions of dollars worth of duplicative government programs that could be cut or combined.

However, the report notes, Congress has done nearly nothing with that advice.

And worse, the study says, while Congress is downsizing its waste watchdog, it isn't stepping up its own oversight. It's doing the opposite, acting more like an overfed lap dog than a guardian of the people's interests.

"Quite frankly, the reason the guidance of GAO is so important at this time is because Congress has increasingly ignored its own duties to oversee the functions of government," Coburn's report says, detailing a shrinking number of oversight activities, especially in the House.

Thirty years ago, Congress held some 4,000 hearings a year, but these days there are more like 2,500, according to the report. And of the hearings in the past, about 48 percent were for oversight. As the hearings have declined, the share of oversight sessions has slipped faster, now comprising about 40 percent of hearings.

"Not only is Congress holding fewer hearings, but those that it does are less and less focused on oversight," the report says, contrasting that with the GAO, which averages about 1,000 reports a year -- many of them labor intensive, requiring months of work -- including a growing number mandated by Congress.

"This report outlines how GAO continues to do more with less while Congress is doing less with more, and demonstrates the cuts proposed by the House and Senate are misdirected and should be rejected," the study concludes.

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