Commentary: GAO Duplicative Programs Report Shows Need for More than Spending Cuts

The Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) recent report on duplicative federal programs has caused quite a stir in Washington. Conservative lawmakers have latched on to the report as "proof" of the need to cut billions of dollars of federal spending. Whether Congress should make such cuts is debatable, but the tome-like report includes much more than an extensive list of duplicative federal programs. It also provides a list of potential cost savings that involve continued prodding and oversight from Congress and some that may even require additional spending to help reduce waste, fraud, and abuse.

The GAO report encompasses the entire federal government, but for the sake of brevity, let's use the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as an example. The GAO report does not include any IRS measures under its list of duplicative programs, at least directly, but it does include quite a few recommendations for the agency under the "Other Cost Savings and Revenue Enhancers" section. These recommendations are all geared toward improving the efficiency and effectiveness of IRS tax collection but can nonetheless be broken down into two categories: areas where Congress needs to continue vigorous oversight and areas where Congress needs to pony up some cash.

Every year, taxpayers fail to provide Uncle Sam with the full amount of taxes due. This is called the tax gap, and at last estimate, it stood at $345 billion (some estimate that it could be as high as $500 billion). The IRS attempts to narrow the gap each year through preventative measures like education and tax preparation assistance and after the fact through tax enforcement initiatives to collect money owed. Much of the IRS's tax enforcement work relies on the availability and use of taxpayer data.

Recognizing the limitations the IRS currently faces without adequate data, GAO recommends that the agency collect more information on everything from mortgage interest and real estate deductions, including forgiven mortgage debt, to sole proprietorships and S corporations. The increased data collection places a higher burden on taxpayers and businesses, though GAO finds that many of these would be minimal seeing that the IRS already collects information on each of these activities. With the recent ascension of Republicans in the House and their aversion to the word "regulation," though, some of these recommendations may find active resistance in Congress rather than the support that is needed.

The other category of recommendations – those that will require increased investment by Congress – range from increasing the use of electronic taxpayer filing to increasing IRS efficiencies with data use. GAO finds that for every return filed electronically, the IRS saves $3.10 compared to the submission of a paper return. And while 71 percent of all returns are now filed electronically, there is still room for increased efficiency.

One area of improvement, according to GAO, is reform of the IRS’s electronic filing rejection service. When a taxpayer files a tax return with an error, the IRS simply responds with a notice, often with a vague error code. Frustrated taxpayers then often mail in a paper return with the same errors, leaving it to the IRS to process, identify, and correct the issue. Reforming the rejection service, though, will require IRS resources to study, test, and implement a solution, all of which requires more, not less, funding. Moreover, on a broader level, one could argue that if more taxpayers are going to use electronic filing – saving the government, and therefore taxpayers, money – they will need access to the Internet, making the case for increased investments in national broadband coverage.

The IRS has requested $13.3 billion for fiscal year (FY) 2012, a $1.2 billion increase over the agency's enacted FY 2010 budget. House Republicans, however, are unlikely to grant that request, as they are currently attempting to cut $603 million from the IRS's current budget. Much of the IRS's requested FY 2012 budget increase will go toward increasing the agency's ability to narrow the tax gap through better tax enforcement and information technology (IT) enhancements.

Unfortunately, the GAO report is shaping up to be just another cudgel congressional Republicans will use to beat down government spending; indeed, a small group of Republican senators has seized on the document, demanding elimination of the duplicative programs outlined before the Senate authorizes more spending.

This is disappointing because there is much more to this report, and if Congress dug a little deeper, they could push the federal government to increase its efficiency and effectiveness through more than inarticulate spending cuts. Streamlining government is a good thing, and there is, no doubt, waste, fraud, and abuse in government spending, but in many cases, it's going to take an investment of funds to help eradicate inefficiency.

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