Senators Protest Planned GAO Funding Cuts

Posted September 29, 2011 at 3:55pm

While House and Senate appropriators continue to hash out a fiscal 2012 budget for the legislative branch, seven members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee are asking that the Government Accountability Office be spared the knife.

Chairman Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and ranking member Susan Collins (R-Maine) wrote Wednesday on GAO’s behalf to Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, and to Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).

These senior appropriators are proposing an allocation of $504 million for the GAO, which would be a 7.6 percent cut from what the agency received in fiscal 2011. This amount was included in a legislative branch spending bill that the Appropriations Committee approved Sept. 15.

Lieberman and Collins contend that the cut is too drastic.

“As you move to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the … spending bill, we would like you to ensure that GAO has the resources it needs to fulfill its mission,” Lieberman and Collins wrote. “We … urge you to direct an appropriate portion of … funding to GAO to ensure that the agency is able to fulfill its role as the government’s auditor.”

Their plea was echoed in a separate letter to Nelson and Hoeven from Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Republican Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.), John McCain (Ariz.), Ron Johnson (Wis.) and Scott Brown (Mass.).

“With our national debt nearing $15 trillion, we must continue to seek cost savings and strive for efficiency throughout the federal government,” the five Senators wrote in the letter, which was spearheaded by Coburn. “We are, however, concerned that the [GAO] 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.”

Often referred to as the Congressional watchdog, the GAO is an independent, nonpartisan agency responsible for holding the federal government accountable in its operations and use of taxpayer dollars.

Its reports are important resources for Congressional committees as they draft legislation, and Congressionally mandated GAO studies have increased by more than 30 percent from fiscal 2010 to 2011.

In a report accompanying the bill, the Appropriations Committee estimated that the proposed cuts would require the GAO to reduce its staff below 3,000 full-time employees through hiring freezes, attrition and early retirement.

“The Committee recognizes that its recommendation will require the GAO to implement severe measures, including a significant and historic reduction in staff,” the report said.

Nelson said lawmakers would have to accept that financial constraints would require them to curb their GAO requests.

“I hope my colleagues are prepared,” he said when the committee convened to approve the legislative branch spending bill. “As many of these agencies can tell you, Members have not demonstrated fewer requests for these services in recent years. It is, in fact, the opposite.”

John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn, said the committee members appear to be “shooting the messenger” with their proposed cuts. The five Senators warned in their letter that the entire legislative branch would “suffer as a result of this dramatic cut.”

“As we seek solutions to our nation’s fiscal crisis, GAO’s nonpartisan expertise has never been more valuable,” they wrote.

The five Senators also criticized the committee’s recommendation that the GAO attach a “cost analysis to every report requested by a member or a committee,” which they wrote would be “an overly burdensome mandate.”

Hart said it was no coincidence that the co-signers of both letters serve on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“I think there’s a common commitment to oversight on this committee and a common appreciation for what the GAO has done to identify duplication,” he said.