GAO’s High Risk List Offers Valuable Suggestions

Blog Post
Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Congress and the administration have a lot of work to do in protecting taxpayer dollars, judging from a new report from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) on programs that it considers at “high risk” for waste, fraud and mismanagement.

In its biennial high risk report, GAO -- often called “the congressional watchdog” -- said its rankings for more than half of the over 30 areas on the list remained largely unchanged and three have regressed.

On the positive side, there were improvements in a handful of areas, and two of them did well enough that GAO took them off the list. But additions to the list brought its current total to 35 areas -- including many that concern high national priorities and massive amounts of tax dollars.

GAO updates the list at the start of each new Congress, using an array of criteria to determine programs that are considered “vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement, or in need of transformation.”

An array of Defense Department problem areas are on the list, including “contract management,” “financial management” and “weapons system acquisition.” Some other items on the High Risk List involve national security concerns, including cybersecurity and the Department of Energy’s contract and project management for the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Such concerns are particularly troubling when the Trump administration is insisting that national security is being severely undermined by a lack of financial resources. Better management could obviously make currently allocated dollars go further.

The GAO’s list also includes a wide range of other critical programs. Some that were singled out as “needing special attention” from policymakers: cybersecurity, the federal role in housing finance, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation’s insurance programs, VA health care, the 2020 census, the “yawning” gap between taxes owed and taxes paid, and “areas relating to health care and tax law enforcement that involve billions of dollars in improper payments each year.”

Federal officials have made some progress in reducing improper Medicare payments, GAO says, but they need “to take further action to address Medicare’s financial and oversight challenges.”

“Sustained agency actions and congressional oversight will be needed to ensure progress is made across the 35 high-risk areas, says Gene L. Dodaro, the U.S. comptroller general and head of the GAO.

The need to spend federal dollars wisely and more effectively was also underscored by GAO’s report last summer on the nation’s fiscal health. It warned that policymakers would need to make difficult choices and that the federal government is “highly leveraged in debt by historical norms” -- a problem that has only gotten worse since then.

GAO notes that efforts to address problems on the High Risk List have brought financial benefits to the federal government of almost $350 billion over the past 13 years. While that is not a panacea for the nation’s fiscal challenges, it certainly helps.

So administration officials and members of Congress should carefully review the updated High Risk List and follow through with steps to save more money and improve government services.