Budget 2014: Federal Government Spends Almost $300 Billion in Redundant Programs

The Government Accountability Office released a report Tuesday on governmental waste, the result of a three-year study on duplication, fragmentation, and overlap in federal agencies. The report found that $95 billion was being spent annually on such projects — ones where the government was found to essentially be doing the same thing twice, thrice, or even more. The report found 31 areas of particular overlap, and within those 31 areas, 81 courses of action that the government — whether it be Congress or the Executive branch, could take to reduce such needless waste.  In combination, the areas identified in prior reports, the total sum comes to $295 billion. That's greater than the amount the federal government currently spends on education and transportation combined.

One of the most egregious problem areas identified is the Armed Forces, where services and programs are often duplicated across the services, which means anywhere between four to seven repetitions of the same schemes. For example, $6.8 billion was been spent between 2008 to 2012 on foreign language services (such as translation, interpretation, teaching, and so forth). Of that, the GAO estimates that $4 billion ($1 billion a year) could be saved by consolidating overlapping programs. 

Some cases just verge on the ludicrous. Since 2008, no less than three government agencies — the Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Marine Fisheries Service — have been each been engaged in the task of inspecting catfish populations. Each agency's requirements are different, but consolidating these services could save millions annually. Of the 69 international language broadcasting services operated by the United States government (such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, or al-Hurra, to list some more prominent ones), 43 overlap with another such service.

The states are not exempt either, however. 39 states made payments to Medicare providers that far exceeded the costs of the actual service to the tune of $2.7 billion. Such waste is endemic and should be dealt with promptly. But this is not the first time the GAO has issued a report on waste via replication: indeed, it is an annual release. However, the action being taken by the government has been worryingly austere. Of the 131 areas identified in the 2011 and 2012 reports as problematic, only 16 had been addressed, and of the 300 necessary actions, only 65 had been taken.

Tom Coburn, the Republican junior senator from Oklahoma, has been a consistent advocate of the reduction of duplicate and redundant government programs. "We are spending trillions of dollars every year and nobody knows what we are doing. The executive branch doesn’t know. The congressional branch doesn’t know. Nobody knows," he said in a statement yesterday. And he's right — the scale of such redundancy often eludes policymakers until a proper analysis, like this, can be made. It is not willful ignorance. But failure from the policymakers to do something would be willful inaction.

Thankfully, this does not seem to be the case. The White House has proposed $25 billion in 214 cuts to redundant programs in its 2014 budget proposal. It is a good step forward, provided that it is not only taken but also that it is not the only one taken. The $295 billion in redundancies far outstrip the $84.5 of the sequestration; and it offers Washington the chance to save "hundreds of billions of dollars every year without cutting services," as Senator Coburn put it. It would appear to be an easy, common-sense move to chip away at almost a third of our $901 billion deficit. But if there is one lesson to be learnt in this hyper-partisan age, it is that common sense is not particularly common in Washington.

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Kyle Dontoh

A student at Columbia University, studying Economics and Political Science, and a columnist for the Columbia Political Review.

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