- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 2, 2011

Pushed by budget hawks, the Senate Appropriations Committee has been searching in every nook and cranny for spending cuts, but it may have gone too far in calling for slashing nearly 8 percent from the budget of the government’s chief watchdog next year.

The move has drawn furious resistance from a bipartisan coalition of senators, one of whom says the spending committee is trying to retaliate against the Government Accountability Office for doing its job of ferreting out waste too well — and publicly showing up the panel.

Not only did the Appropriations Committee cut the GAO’s budget, but it also directed analysts to provide a cost-benefit analysis to each study it does to determine whether the time and money invested was worth the output in terms of savings.

Sen. Tom Coburn last week led four colleagues in firing off a letter to the appropriators questioning the cuts and demanding to know “why GAO has been singled out” with the unusual cost-benefit reporting requirement.

“Practically, it seems to be an overly burdensome mandate that would further consume GAO’s dwindling resources without providing any obvious cost benefit,” the Oklahoma Republican and his colleagues wrote.

That same day, two other senators — the Democratic chairman and ranking Republican on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee — wrote their own letter asking for the funding to be boosted again.

The GAO, a branch of the legislature and funded out of Congress’ accounts, is the government’s chief waste investigator. In fiscal 2010 alone, it identified $49.9 billion in potential savings — or $87 for every dollar spent by the agency.

The fight is the latest skirmish in the ongoing battle between the influential appropriators — whose power stems from the fact that they write the dozen annual spending bills that fund basic government functions — and budget hawks, who say the spending committees in both the House and Senate don’t do enough oversight of the programs they approve.

Those budget hawks often turn to the GAO to root out waste — and they fear the proposed budget cuts are retaliation. Mr. Coburn has made that charge several times in the two weeks since the Appropriations Committee released its bill.

A spokesman for Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat, who is chairman of the legislative spending subcommittee and wrote the cuts, declined to comment on the fight, but pointed back to the senator’s statement in September when he introduced the legislation and said all sides would need to do more with less.

“With our economy still in trouble and spending in Washington still much too high, Congress needs to lead by example and cut its own budget,” Mr. Nelson said at the time.

Don Canton, a spokesman for Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said the cuts this year are a way to even out spending over the past couple of years.

He said the last time around that the GAO got a slight increase even as many other legislative accounts were frozen, so the cut in 2012 brings the GAO in line with the two-year average of trims. He said, though, that Mr. Hoeven is open to revisiting the funding.

“We support good, strong accountability, and we’re certainly willing to discuss this with the other senators,” Mr. Canton said.

Overall, the legislative accounts are cut 5.2 percent in the Senate bill, while the GAO is cut 7.6 percent, to $504.5 million. The agency got $546.1 million in 2011 and had asked for $556.8 million in fiscal 2012.

According to information provided by Mr. Coburn’s office, Congress has steadily cut the GAO’s personnel and funding, even as lawmakers boosted their own office spending.

The GAO’s reports are often used to highlight government waste and inefficiency. For example, a GAO report earlier this year identified billions of dollars spent on 81 different areas where the government has duplicative programs doing essentially the same thing, while another report found 30 federal programs particularly susceptible to fraud or abuse.

Since that report, Mr. Coburn has twice offered an amendment to try to recapture some of that money, including most recently as a way to offset increased disaster-aid money. It gained 54 votes, short of the 60 needed to be adopted in the Senate.

On the other side of the Capitol, the House passed its own version of the legislative-spending bill earlier this year. It included a total cut of 3 percent to the GAO, which would mean $529.6 million of funding. That’s still $27 million less than the GAO wanted.

The House registered its own complaints about the GAO, delivering a written spanking over testimony GAO officials gave on for-profit colleges that has come under fire for being biased.

“In its investigation of its own report, GAO determined that pressure to find errors in ‘15 out of 15’ schools and to finish the report within a short time frame, as well as last-minute demands to include revisions to the report, resulted in a flawed final product that, even with revisions, remains available for public reference,” the appropriators wrote in a committee report.

A GAO spokeswoman said the agency had no comment on the funding dispute. But in its official request for 2012 funding, the agency warned that cuts would mean fewer reports would be done and that they would take longer to release.

Congress hasn’t passed any of the dozen annual spending bills, and the government is once again operating on stopgap funding.

All sides are bracing for a massive omnibus bill that would combine most of those annual spending bills into a trillion-dollar package, and the GAO’s funding likely will be worked out in that deal.

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