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Duplicated federal programs waste billions, GAO finds

| Tuesday, April 9, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

WASHINGTON — Redundant federal programs are wasting billions of dollars, congressional auditors say, and the government is slow to adopt reforms to fix the problem.

The White House says President Obama recognizes the problem and will propose eliminating redundant programs in the budget plan he releases Wednesday.

Among the 31 areas of duplicated spending, spelled out in a report by the Government Accountability Office obtained by USA Today:

• Government agencies are spending billions on new mapping data — without checking whether some other government agency has maps they could use.

• At least 23 federal agencies run hundreds of programs to support renewable energy.

• Each branch of the armed services is developing its own camouflage uniforms without sharing them with other services.

The report, to be released on Tuesday at a House Oversight Committee hearing, caps a three-year effort to track wasteful government spending.

“At a time of increased budget pressure, American taxpayers cannot afford to keep buying the same service twice,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, in a statement prepared for the hearing.

Overall, GAO found 162 areas in which agencies are duplicating efforts, at a cost of billions of dollars.

How many billions? No one knows.

“The big problem the GAO had, if you read the report, they can't adequately estimate their savings because agencies can't tell them how much they're spending,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who authored the amendment requiring the annual reports. “We're a mess.”

Obama will propose cutting or consolidating 215 federal programs, saving $25 billion next year, according to an administration source who spoke on condition of anonymity because the budget hasn't been released. Two specific areas Obama may reorganize: the 220 science education programs spread over 13 agencies and the more than 40 federal job training programs.

“The President has made rooting out waste and improving the way government works a top priority,” said a statement from Danny Werfel, controller of the Office of Federal Financial Management. The budget plan would “reorganize programs and streamline and strengthen services, building on the hundreds of proposals the President has proposed each year to cut, consolidate or save money on programs that are no longer needed.”

Often, the government funds the same research with different grants. Virginia Tech professor Harold “Skip” Garner examined a federal grant database and found 167 biomedical research grants, worth $200 million, that appeared to be funded through two programs.

“Government agencies don't exchange information about their funded programs. There's no centralized place where all this stuff could be managed and searched and discovered,” Garner said.

“It's because these agencies, of course, have different missions, and they're somewhat competitive. They like to see their money go to the best researchers,” he said. “Competition is good, but cooperation is also good.”

The report says the government is slow to address the program creep, following through on only 22 percent of the recommendations the GAO has made since 2011.

But that's because of congressional inaction as much as bureaucratic resistance.

“Congress has the ultimate authority. Congress created all these programs. Congress ought to oversight them, downsize them, put metrics on them and fund them properly, and then come back in two years and see if they're effective,” Coburn said. “It's hard because all programs have a parochial benefactor, and career politicians don't want to irritate anybody.”

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