Streamline the Beast: Efficiency Report Breaks New Ground in Budget Debate

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A Government Accountability Office report released Tuesday outlined scores of fractured and redundant programs split between federal agencies from the Small Business Administration to the Department of Defense, and identified a patchwork of potential savings and revenue opportunities in the deficit-racked government.

According to the GAO, 20 separate agencies currently run 56 different financial literacy programs. Ten agencies operate 82 teacher quality initiatives and more than 100 programs relating to surface transportation are spread across five federal entities. It takes 15 agencies to oversee food safety, including two for eggs – the Food and Drug Administration monitors unbroken “shell” eggs while the Food Safety and Inspection Service is responsible for “egg products.”

The report is the first in a series of annual updates from the GAO mandated by Congress. The amendment calling for these studies was pegged to raising the debt ceiling last year in January and was introduced by Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. It passed by a 94-0 vote.

More than just a roadmap for efficiency, the document may chart a path out of the budget morass that has swallowed up Washington in recent months. The nonpartisan GAO’s findings are neutral territory for Democrats, still fighting for economic investments and to protect new regulatory structures, and Republicans, who are pushing for deep cuts to programs Dems consider sacrosanct. Though excising redundancies is far from a fiscal panacea and the GAO didn’t estimate a specific dollar amount, Coburn thinks the report could lead to $100 billion or more in savings.

Congress is expected to pass a stopgap funding bill this week that includes $4 billion in bipartisan cuts, but the government will shut down on March 18 if the two parties can’t agree to new spending levels. Mutually palatable cuts are becoming increasingly hard to find. The GAO’s report offers a novel opportunity to streamline not only the federal beast, but also the political process that feeds it.

“This is a chance to make smart cuts, instead of reckless cuts,” Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said Tuesday. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called the report “constructive” and sounded open to enacting some of its recommendations. “I think there are duplicative programs around here that we could cut,” he said. “I don’t say this very often, but I’m glad Coburn asked for it.”

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the No. 3 Republican in the House went a step further, telling reporters, “We will cut government just as the GAO report says.” Lawmakers are already considering legislation that would require relevant oversight committees in Congress to hold hearings on potential savings detailed in the report.