WASHINGTON — Congressional oversight has been on a relatively steady decline for years, despite increases in lawmakers' budgets and staffing, says a new report aimed at shielding the Government Accountability Office from funding cuts proposed by Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb.
Over the past 30 years, the number of oversight hearings per session has fallen from 4,000 to fewer than 3,000, according to the report, which was released Wednesday by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. Since 2000, Congress has increased its own budget from $1.2 billion to nearly $2.3 billion, the report pointed out.
Coburn is pushing back against Nelson's proposal to cut the GAO budget from $546.2 million to $504.5 million, or 7.6 percent, as part of a 5.2 percent cut in overall legislative branch spending, which includes agencies such as the GAO, the Library of Congress and the Capitol Police.
Nelson said this week he has heard concerns from other senators about the cuts and said discussions were continuing about adding back some money for the GAO. But he also has said that all parts of government need to sacrifice during a time of budget austerity.
"Nebraskans want Washington to cut spending and balance the budget," Nelson said in response to Coburn's report. "Cuts won't be easy, and agency by agency, there will be resistance. I intend to put the interests of Nebraska taxpayers ahead of Washington bureaucrats and make cuts where we can."
In addition to the spending cuts, Nelson has said he wants to look at the cost of individual GAO reports and whether certain members of Congress are leaning too heavily on the agency.
"Obviously there are some who spend more time pushing for investigations than others," Nelson said. "The concern is that this not become the agency used by just a handful of senators, even though it's for all offices."
Coburn's report highlights the GAO's ability to save the government significant money by identifying billions of dollars in waste and abuse. He said cuts to GAO are exactly the wrong way to go, particularly in light of the decreasing number of oversight hearings held by Congress.
Coburn cited the House and Senate Appropriations Committees acknowledgment that cuts would hamper the agency, such as by increasing the response time for GAO studies.
He quoted Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, who recently announced a likely six-day furlough for all GAO employees next year. Dodaro also said GAO "might end up producing fewer reports, or fewer testimonies, or experience longer delays before starting our jobs — but we will not sacrifice quality."
The report said GAO had 5,325 employees in 1992, compared with 3,212 today. The budget cuts are expected to drive the number below 3,000 for the first time.
"All of this means that the very time Congress most needs GAO to help navigate the difficult budgetary choices ahead by identifying non-ideological cost savings, Congress is dealing the taxpayers' watchdog a blow," said Coburn's report. "The ultimate impact will be inefficiencies paid for by American taxpayers."
Coburn called for eliminating Nelson's proposed cuts and instead taking that money out of Congress' own budgets. He said GAO could take a closer look at itself to identify long-term saving and suggested that when GAO uncovers significant waste and inefficiencies in government agencies, the agencies should be required to pay for the audit.
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