WASHINGTON — The Government Accountability Office represents a tiny portion of the overall federal budget, but it's now at the heart of some contentious Capitol Hill wrangling.
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., has been steering a bill that would trim overall spending in the legislative branch, including cuts to the GAO, an independent, nonpartisan agency that, among other things, investigates the waste, fraud and abuse of federal taxpayer money.
Critics say Nelson's proposal is penny-wise and pound-foolish in cutting back the watchdog agency, but Nelson insists that he's just asking every part of the federal government to do its part during lean budget times.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., called Nelson's legislation a “secret war against oversight” in a recent editorial he penned for the Washington Examiner.
Coburn said Congress has failed to make cuts to dozens of overlapping and duplicative federal programs that were identified in a GAO report earlier this year — programs that Coburn said cost taxpayers $200 billion a year.
“The message coming from our citizens and the international financial community is this: If we want our economy to survive and recover we need live within our means,” Coburn wrote. “GAO's recommendations are the place to start cutting, not GAO itself.”
Nelson praised the agency's work and said any suggestion that the GAO cuts are aimed at undermining oversight is off base.
“I think they do a good job,” Nelson said. “This has nothing with the quality of their work or the quantity of their work. This has to do with cutting spending. It's what people back home want. It's what they're going to get.”
The criticism he has received shows how difficult it is to cut federal spending, he said.
“The question is always, ‘Where do you cut?' Everybody's in favor of cuts until there are cuts,” Nelson said. “There's a constituency for every dollar in the federal budget.”
Nelson leads the subcommittee that oversees legislative branch spending. That includes the budgets for lawmakers' own offices, as well as agencies such as Capitol Police, the Library of Congress and the GAO.
He put together the spending measure for fiscal year 2012 with the subcommittee's top Republican. The measure was recently approved by the full Appropriations Committee. The bill would cut overall legislative branch spending by 5.2 percent, with the GAO's budget dropping from $546.2 million to $504.5 million, a 7.6 percent cut.
Nelson has the support of his home-state colleague, Republican Sen. Mike Johanns.
“I think every part of the federal government could deal with some cuts, whether it's GAO, our offices, whatever,” Johanns told The World-Herald. “I support (Nelson) in that, and I think the reaction to that is unfair, really.”
Johanns, who served as U.S. secretary of agriculture under President George W. Bush, said federal agencies can always find ways to be more efficient.
“It won't slow them down at all,” Johanns said of the proposed GAO cuts. “I mean, give me a break.”
A report from the Appropriations Committee accompanying the measure notes that the number of legislatively mandated GAO studies increased by over 30 percent from fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2011.
“Given the current fiscal constraints of this budget, it is evident that many of the services provided by the GAO will be curtailed due to reductions in staff and resources,” the report noted. “The committee recognizes that its recommendation will require the GAO to implement severe measures including a significant and historic reduction in staff to below 3,000 (full-time employees), through a hiring freeze, attrition and early retirement.”
The legislation also would require the GAO to add a cost analysis to every report requested by a congressional member or a committee.
Nelson's would-be Republican challenger, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, criticized the proposal.
“At a time when our federal government is running massive deficits, it's unconscionable to propose cuts to the Government Accountability Office's budget,” Bruning said in a press release. “Rather than cut agencies who find waste, fraud and abuse, Congress should be listening to the GAO's recommendations and finding ways to streamline and cut the federal government.”
Nelson said the GAO has fared better than other agencies in recent budgets, with increases to its funding.
“If we thought we were cutting it and that would adversely affect the outcome of their studies and their investigations, that would be different,” Nelson said, “but everybody has to be able to do with less and get their jobs done.”
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