On Wednesday before the House oversight committee, Gene Dodaro, the eighth comptroller general of the U.S., was called to discuss federal programs that are struggling.
His agency, the Government Accountability Office, produces a list of vulnerable agencies across government that are operating “in the red,” whether because of underfunding, understaffing or woefully outdated technology.
Dodaro took the opportunity to point out vulnerabilities at his own agency, which like many, is threatened by the Republicans’ debt ceiling bill that could come to a vote this week. The proposal, led by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and called the “Limit, Save, Grow Act,” would raise the debt ceiling and avoid a default by reducing non-defense spending by 22%, according to White House estimates.
“We would have to shut GAO down for about a month and a half,” Dodaro said, in response to a question about how cuts would affect his office. He said that proposed cuts together could force the agency to lay off 570 employees and leave vacancies open.
At the same time, Dodaro said the responsibilities of his agency have only grown, as recent legislation like the CHIPS Act, Inflation Reduction Act and annual funding bills have created hundreds of oversight mandates for his staff.
For one, GAO needs 312 full-time employees to meet just the 158 mandates in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act.
“We provide $145 for every dollar invested in us in the last five years,” Dodaro said. “We provide a very good return on investment and to get the returns, you have to continue to make the investment. It’d be like pulling your money out of a CD and still expecting interest.”
GAO monitors federal programs year round and produces detailed reports that often become evidence during congressional hearings. The work of its more than 3,000 employees are often a compass for funding decisions and shape agencies’ actions through its legislative proposals and program recommendations.
GAO also says it’s hoping for the support of appropriators to update its decades-old legacy technology in the next fiscal year.
The culmination of the agency’s oversight work is the high-risk list, which this year showed agencies made record progress. In 2023, 16 of 34 high-risk areas improved since 2021, the most in eight years.
In response, Democrats on the committee warned that continued progress is not possible if Congress cuts agencies’ funding. In some cases, programs come off the precipice as a direct result of beefier budgets.
For example, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation’s insurance system “is being removed because Congress provided funding to troubled multi-employer pension plans, which has led to an improved financial position,” the report said.
“In the GAO’s high-risk report, it’s acknowledged over and over again across the hundreds of pages in this report that part of why we made progress … is because we’ve been making investments, particularly congressional investments,” said Rep. Melanie Stansbury of New Mexico.
Republicans cited the need to rein in the $281 billion agencies spent in improper payments in 2021. The full scope of that figure is also likely to be understated because it doesn’t account for COVID-19 programs, like paycheck protection.
Dodaro said he didn’t know exactly the extent to which the debt bill would impede agencies’ missions to take up GAO recommendations. It depends, he said, on what carryover or multi-year funding they have.
Rep. Kelly Armstrong of North Dakota said that while the committee debates funding and resources, Congress has “abdicated its responsibility” by allowing agencies to expand their scope beyond their original authority.
“If Congress wants to have an aggressive posture on reducing waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government, if Congress wants to generate smart ideas on how to cut the federal government’s spending without harming individuals, and if Congress wants an effective oversight mechanism over the executive branch, then you need a strong GAO to be able to do that,” Dodaro said during an appropriations hearing last month.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.