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Coburn Pushes for Funding Boost to GAO

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) is unleashing his latest attempt to save the Government Accountability Office from looming budget cuts, and his calls are already being heeded, in part.

He released a 29-page report Wednesday condemning appropriators in both chambers for targeting the GAO with cuts he said would prevent the agency from doing its work as “the taxpayers’ watchdog.”

But Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.), who serve as chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, told Roll Call on Tuesday that there is an agreement to give the agency a bit more money than the panel previously proposed.

Hoeven said the agency would suffer a 6 percent spending cut in the legislation they could bring to the floor as part of a minibus appropriations package. The Senate Appropriations Committee passed a legislative branch spending bill in September that would have trimmed the GAO budget by 7.6 percent.

“We had a number of our colleagues get in touch with us and wanted to talk about it and we said we would, so we worked through it,” Hoeven said.

“I hope we’ve satisfied some of the concerns,” Nelson added.

The House also opted for a 6 percent cut for the GAO when it passed its spending bill in July. But that might not satisfy Coburn, who would prefer an allocation at least equal to the agency’s fiscal 2011 level of $546.3 million.

He has for months been lobbying his colleagues to reconsider cuts to the agency responsible for producing hundreds of reports and audits each year to help the federal government operate and spend money efficiently. He has sent formal letters to senior appropriators and spoken out at committee hearings.

The new report is meant to make the case, once and for all, that the GAO should be given enough resources to help it fulfill its mission, especially as it prepares to downsize its operations and could institute mandatory furloughs to save money.

“For nearly 90 years, GAO has served as a vital arm of Congress, helping it keep close tabs on federal spending,” the report reads. “Without it, Congress would have difficulty performing its constitutional role of overseeing the Executive Branch.”

Coburn’s report is more than just an appeal to boost the GAO: It’s also a treatise on the supposed inability of Congress to function effectively.

“The irony is Congress needs GAO’s assistance now more than ever,” the report reads. “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.”

House and Senate committees held fewer and fewer hearings between the 96th and 109th Congresses, according to data Coburn’s staff collected from the University of Texas at Austin and the Brookings Institution.

There has also been a decline in the number of amendments considered on the Senate floor as well as in the number of roll-call votes taken, the report states — both are ways that the public can keep tabs on what their lawmakers are doing.

The report also contends that while the Congressional budget has increased by nearly 50 percent in the past decade,  the GAO’s budget has seen little increase over that period. All the while, Congressional requests for GAO reports are on the rise.

Though Coburn’s spokesman did not say specifically what he would be willing to accept from appropriators, the strong tone of the report suggests that Coburn would be unhappy with any reduction.

If the legislative branch spending bill comes to the floor, Coburn could offer an amendment to restore funding to fiscal 2011 levels.