GAO at-Risk List Underscores Importance of Oversight in 2009

Posted January 26, 2009 at 4:25pm

In his first weekly radio address, President Barack Obama promised “unprecedented effort to root out waste, inefficiency and unnecessary spending in our government.” The fact that Obama has chosen his very first weekly radio address to underscore the need to address waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement in our government is an encouraging first step in what I hope will be an ongoing commitment and partnership to bring accountability and oversight back to government.

Obama has recognized that oversight and reform can be the true catalyst in his effort to change Washington. This past week, the Government Accountability Office released its high-risk list for 2009. The high-risk list identifies 30 programs that are highly susceptible to waste, fraud or mismanagement and can serve as a blueprint for Congressional oversight of troubled federal programs in the 111th Congress. [IMGCAP(1)]

Twelve of the 30 programs on this 2009 high-risk list have spanned both the Clinton and George H.W. Bush administrations. The new additions to the list center on the outdated U.S. financial regulatory system, Food and Drug Administration oversight of medical products and the Environmental Protection Agency’s processes for assessing and controlling toxic chemicals.

Particularly at a time when our financial solvency is being threatened by a deep economic recession, we must take immediate action to address the shortcomings identified in our financial system. The report also calls for more oversight of the now trillions of dollars that the federal government has committed to the financial sector. “In the near term, oversight is needed to ensure that the government’s responses to the crisis achieve their goals effectively,” the report says. “In the longer term, modernizing the U.S. financial regulatory system will be a critical step to ensuring that the challenges of the 21st century can be met.”

That is why I have re-introduced the Financial Oversight Commission Act (H.R. 74), which would create an independent and bipartisan panel to study and issue a report on the causes, handling and way forward from the current financial crisis. For the second time in less than six months, the American people are being asked to foot a $350 billion bill without being told where their money went or what it is going to be used for.

The Financial Oversight Commission Act establishes a national commission on the financial crisis to determine the causes of the breakdown of our financial system and make recommendations to Congress and the president. Modeled after the 9/11 commission and the Iraq Study Group, the Financial Oversight Commission will examine and report on the facts and causes relating to the financial crisis of 2008.

Oversight and accountability needs to be more than just an afterthought when it comes to taxpayer dollars. The ongoing policy of asking for money first and promising reform second is resulting in hundreds of billions of dollars of losses being transferred onto the balance sheet of America’s taxpayers. We need an active, independent oversight body to ensure these losses aren’t further amplified by political or bureaucratic bungling.

The catalyst for the kind of change Obama has called for should begin with a commitment to weed out the waste, fraud and abuse that has overrun the federal government. The GAO’s at-risk list underscores the reality that federal waste and troubled programs don’t leave office with an outgoing president. If Obama takes 30 minutes to review this report, he won’t read about the failures of his three predecessors, but about the continuing failure of a nonpartisan federal bureaucracy that is resistant to reform.

There is no question that both executive and Congressional leadership will be crucial if we are to successfully reform the federal government. “Perseverance by the executive branch is needed in implementing our recommended solutions for addressing these high-risk areas. Continued congressional oversight and, in some cases, additional legislative action will also be key to achieving progress, particularly in addressing challenges in broad-based transformations,” the report reads.

By making oversight and government reform the centerpiece of his agenda, Obama can demonstrate from action that his call for change on the campaign trail was more than just a slogan, but rather a new covenant with the American people to rebuild a government that works for and is accountable to them. Working with House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) and Obama, we can ensure that oversight and accountability is more than just an afterthought, but rather a permanent fixture in our government.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is ranking member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.