How the Government Saved $136 Billion in 5 Years By Cutting Waste
Policy + Politics

How the Government Saved $136 Billion in 5 Years By Cutting Waste


Amid growing concerns about rampant federal spending, costly tax cuts and a nearly $20 trillion national debt, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on Wednesday offered a small glimmer of hope that Congress and federal agencies may be getting a handle on wasteful and duplicative government services and programs. 

In its seventh annual report on opportunities to reduce “fragmentation, overlap and duplication” in federal programs, the non-partisan watchdog estimated that the government saved at least $136 billion between 2011 and 2016 by following hundreds of GAO’s recommendations for reforms. 

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Moreover, many billions of dollars more in savings could be achieved if federal agencies – particularly the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and the Internal Revenue Service – were more responsive to GAO’s proposals, the report claims. Of the 645 cost-savings measures that GAO proposed over the past seven years, only half of them have been acted on while the remainder were only “partially addressed” or ignored. 

“The federal government faces a long-term, unsustainable fiscal path based on an imbalance between federal revenues and spending,” the GAO said in its report. “While addressing this structural imbalance will require fiscal policy changes, in the near-term opportunities exist to take action in a number of areas to improve this situation, including where federal programs or activities are fragmented, overlapping, or duplicative.” 

The new report comes as President Trump is pressing for budget cuts in most departments and agencies in the coming years to help offset the cost of a major buildup in defense and homeland security, construction of a wall along the southern border with Mexico, a surge in infrastructure construction and costly tax cuts. 

Those GAO savings, both large and small, could put a small dent in the overall federal budget. 

For instance, Congress took the GAO’s advice and eliminated overly generous direct payments to farmers in the 2014 Agriculture Act – a move that is expected to save the government as much as $44 billion through 2023. The Pentagon removed two brigade combat teams from Europe in 2013 along with many support units that were no longer needed to save $2.3 billion in operation and support costs over five years. 

The Department of Energy’s review of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in 2016 resulted in savings of $8 billion from the sale of crude oil from the reserve. By deciding against introducing a new line of camouflage uniforms into its inventory, the Army saved about $4.2 billion over five years. 

There were other savings as well. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) saved $3.4 billion by using other means to resolve troubled mortgages. And Congress saved $2.55 billion between 2011 and 2013 by limiting preparedness grant funding, pending a much- needed Federal Emergency Management Agency national preparedness assessment of capability gaps. 

Now GAO is offering 79 new action proposals. Here are just 10 of them: 

Related: Trump’s Big Naval Buildup Could Cost $750 Billion Over 30 Years 

Redundant monitoring of bees –  There are many agencies besides the Department of Agriculture that monitor the population and health status of wild, native bees that provide farmers and environmentalists with valuable pollination services.

Virtual military training -- The Army and Air Force need to improve the management and oversight of the billions they’ve spent on virtual simulators and training programs to avoid fragmentation and wasteful spending.

Pentagon Advertising – The Department of Defense must coordinate among the military services in funding advertising and public relations activities to avoid duplicating efforts among the seven competing military operations.

Federal Grant Awards -- The National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Food and Nutrition Service and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have not established a formal process to avoid duplicating grants.   

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Federal Hiring -- The Office of Personnel Management (OBM) needs to streamline the hiring process and consolidate the more than 105 hiring laws to make the process more effective.

Collecting foreign assistance data – The State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) need to improve data quality to ensure consistency in published information. 

Tracking missing and unidentified persons -- The Federal Bureau of Investigation and National Institute of Justice could reduce overlap on missing and unidentified persons and in the process help solve more of the 600,000 missing person cases each year.

Collecting sexual violence data –  Four agencies – DoD, the Department of Education, HHS and the Justice Department – manage at least 10 different efforts to collect data on sexual violence, which differ in the target population, measurement and terminology. But there is no single standard or for collecting the data.

Related: Budget Watchdog to Trump: Government Spending Is on an Unsustainable Path 

Managing DoD commissaries – By managing commissaries the 238 global commissaries more efficiently, the DoD could “position itself to better achieve” its cost savings target of $2 billion, the report says. 

Government credit cards – In fiscal 2015, federal agencies used purchase cards to procure nearly $19 billion of a wide variety of goods, such as office supplies and general contractor services. Some of those purchases were questionable or improper. An increased focus on analyzing agency-wide purchase cards use “would provide federal agencies with opportunities to leverage the government’s buying power and potentially obtain substantial cost savings on the billions spent annually using purchase cards.”