BY BRIANNA EHLEY
Nearly every day, federal auditors release scathing reports detailing new and outrageous ways tax dollars are squandered–from massive projects that soar way over budget, to vulnerable programs that fall prey to fraud and abuse.
The auditors typically include recommendations for agencies so that similar problems within their departments can be prevented in the future. But what if there were broader solutions that could overhaul the entire way the government does its job to weed out waste before it happens?
One independent watchdog group thinks it has the answers.
The nonprofit Project on Government Oversight released a massive wish list of reforms that targets everything from the way the government awards contracts to the lack of transparency over lobbying practices.
Much of POGO’s reform list involves the Defense Department’s programs and spending. This isn’t surprising since the Pentagon’s sprawling budget (the White House request for 2016 is $495.6 billion) hasn’t been successfully audited in decades.
POGO is calling for more transparency on how the DOD spends its money and greater scrutiny over some of its weapons programs like the F-35 fighter jet, which is hundreds of billions of dollars over budget and has never flown in combat.
The group has an unexpected new ally. Newly appointed Defense Secretary Ashton Carter acknowledged as much in an especially scathing observation of his department.
“The taxpayer cannot comprehend it, let alone support the defense budget [given] cost overruns, lack of accounting and accountability, needless overhead and the like,” Carter said. “This must stop.”
The watchdog group is asking Congress to embrace its so-called “roadmap to reform” in order to “achieve a more effective, accountable, open and ethical government” while potentially saving billions of dollars a year.
The watchdog’s list also targets broader areas of reform that can be applied across the government, like whistleblower protections, lobbying transparency and closer oversight over contracts and acquisitions.
Here are 5 reforms the government could implement to save tax dollars, recommended by POGO.
NATIONAL DEFENSE AUTHORIZATION ACT TRANSPARENCY
Problem: The NDAA greenlights more than half a trillion dollars in funding for the military and sets defense policy each year in discussion with the House Armed Services Committee. However, once it gets to the Senate it goes behind closed doors. With such a massive amount of money and high-stakes policy, POGO believes the process needs more transparency so the public can see how its tax dollars are spent.
Solution: Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has said that he wants to make the process more transparent. POGO agrees and says the Committee meetings should be open and the NDAA text should be published online for easy access.
Problem: The federal government spent over $460 billion on goods and services in 2013 with much of that going towards costly projects that soar way over budget and far behind schedule — or as POGO puts it, “just plain wasteful.” As the group points out, there are serious problems with the way the government awards contracts, and the way some agencies deal with delinquent contractors who either don’t deliver the work they promised or deliver it in poor quality that ends up costing taxpayers more to rebuild.
Solution: POGO recommends that the federal government set up a more timely suspension and debarment process. Right now debarring or suspending contractors can take years, but by congressionally mandating that the process must be complete in a certain timeframe, it could be resolved faster. The group also suggested making contract awards more accessible on USASpending.gov.
Problem: The revolving door between government officials and private sector executives “frequently undermines the integrity of contracting, enforcement and regulatory decisions,” POGO said. When high-ranking public officials go into the private sector to lobby the same people they used to work with in the government, it can lead to serious conflicts of interest.
Solution: POGO recommends the federal government require former workers to agree to which programs and projects they are banned from working in the private sector. They should also be required to disclose where they used to work and for what length of time. The group also recommends that agencies require former federal workers to wait two years before contacting the part of the government they worked for in a lobbying capacity.
VETERANS AFFAIRS & WHISTLEBLOWER PROTECTIONS
Problem: The agency, embroiled in scandal, has allegedly been covering wait times and engaging in negligent treatment of its patients at VA hospitals across the country. As POGO points out, these serious problems would never have been discovered if whistleblowers hadn’t come forward to tell their stories. The agency is also struggling with an enormous backlog of cases forcing veterans to wait even longer to get treatment.
Solution: The group recommends calling on Congress to pass legislation that holds those retaliating against whistleblowers accountable. Separately, POGO says that the government should create more specific and transparent VA reporting requirements.
Problem: The Pentagon spends hundreds of billions of dollars on enhanced weapons programs that sometimes don’t work or can’t serve their intended purpose. Meanwhile, some new weapons systems are less effective than what the Pentagon already has and cost even more. Most of the time the problem stems from a lack of oversight of program development. For example, the littoral combat ship, designed to be light, and fast has soared way over budget and can’t even survive combat.
Solution: Test drive. POGO recommends that the Defense Department should not allow weapons systems to be produced until contractors can prove through a series of simulated tests that the technologies will work as intended. It also recommends that DOD be held accountable when building such massive and costly weapons systems. The group suggests that Congress should routinely hold hearings to be updated on the programs development and progress.