WASHINGTON -- Sen. Tom Coburn and several colleagues are taking their fellow senators to task for slashing the Government Accountability Office's budget. They're demanding to know why the top federal government watchdog has been "singled out" even as it saves the taxpayers billions.
The Huffington Post reported recently that the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for the Legislative Branch has drawn up plans to reduce the GAO budget by more than 7 percent, cutting more than $40 million even as it also proposed rules requiring the agency to do more paperwork.
And yet the GAO saved the federal government about $43 billion in 2009. In a scathing op-ed on Wednesday, Coburn noted that Congress this year has failed to act on any of the watchdog's recommendations to save $200 billion by targeting wasteful programs.
The Oklahoma Republican suggested the budget-cutting "proposal looks like mismanagement at best and pay back at worse."
His Sept. 28 letter to fellow senators is less blunt but still emphatic. It's signed by a bipartisan mix that also includes Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
"As we seek solutions to our nation's fiscal crisis, GAO's nonpartisan expertise has never been more valuable," they wrote, noting that the $43 billion the agency saved in 2009 represented a return of $80 for each $1 spent on the GAO. "The $41.7 million cut to GAO's budget could, therefore, result in $3.3 billion in federal funds that will be lost to waste, fraud, abuse, and inefficiency.
"We cannot afford that possibility, especially at this time," they argue.
The senators found it especially ironic that as the GAO's legislatively mandated workload jumped by 30 percent from 2010 to 2011, the lawmakers themselves have performed less oversight, holding 318 fewer hearings in the last Congress than in the one before that.
"There is no question oversight of the federal government, a primary function of the legislative branch, will suffer as a result of this dramatic cut to GAO funding," the senators wrote.
The office of Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who chairs the legislative branch subcommittee, declined to comment directly on the letter, referring HuffPost to his statement when the recommendations were released. But Nelson told HuffPost last week that the cuts were carefully considered and part of the federal government's needed belt-cinching.
He also argued that new rules requiring the GAO to track all hours spent working on each report it produced were just a way to push legislators to think twice before mandating more such reports.
Former GAO director David Walker, however, told HuffPost that such a requirement would be a waste of effort, since the agency already accounts for its work.
In his letter, Coburn suggested the fact that the requirement is not being slapped on other investigative agencies -- such as the Congressional Research Service and the Congressional Budget Office -- shows that the GAO is being singled out. He also argued that since the GAO cut amounts to more than 10 percent of the entire legislative branch's budget, it's out of line.
He noted that senators' personnel and office expenses are being cut just 3 percent, as is the budget for the John Stennis Center for Public Service Training and Development, which aims to create better public servants.
"We are concerned," the senators wrote, "that the Government Accountability Office is being unfairly singled out with both excessively deep cuts and overly burdensome new mandates that will consume the agency's more limited resources for no apparent benefit."
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