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Senator Lankford Questions Government Accountability Office on High-Risk List

 CLICK HERE to watch the video of Lankford’s Q&A.

WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) questioned Gene Dodaro, the Comptroller General of the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Mark Gaffigan, Managing Director of Natural Resources and Environment team at GAO, during a Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing entitled, High Risk List 2019: Recommendations to Reduce Risk of Waste, Fraud, and Mismanagement in Federal Programs. Officials discussed GAO’s 2019 HighRisk List, a detailed report issued by GAO at the start of each new session of Congress. GAO’s high-risk list identifies federal operations that are potentially vulnerable to waste, fraud, abuse, or mismanagement.

Following Lankford’s service on the Joint Select Committee on Budget and Appropriations Process Reform, Lankford introduced this week the fourth volume of his federal government waste report, Federal Fumbles: Ways the federal government dropped the ball, which identifies wasteful and/or inefficient federal programs and process issues in government along with solutions for each issue. The first 10 pages of Lankford’s Federal Fumbles feature entries on the federal budget and appropriations process, the debt ceiling, and federal spending gimmicks. Lankford also asked GAO for an update to its recommendation on several Tribal issues raised to GAO in 2017 after Lankford identified several areas for reform regarding Tribal issues in his first (2015) and second (2016) volumes of Federal Fumbles.

Excerpts of Hearing Q&A

On the US debt ceiling (0:58)

Lankford: On the debt ceiling, I’d be interested in to be able to finish that conversation that you started with Senator Romney as well. Are you making a recommendation for a process? Because obviously this is unique in the world in the way that we do debt ceiling votes. No one else does it like we do and probably for a good reason. No one else does it like we do. Do you have recommendations on that that you would want to present?

Dodaro: Yes, we’ve highlighted three potential options that the Congress could deal with. One would be to set it within the budget resolution process each year. So when you make appropriation decisions and revenue decisions, you could say just like any household would say, ‘Here’s our expenditure here’s our revenues, here’s how much we’re going to have to borrow.’ Okay, we recognize that when we make the decisions on appropriations. I also think that the budget committees need to have a more holistic look at the government. Somebody needs to do it in the Congress. So that could be done that way. Secondly, another option could be that Congress just authorize Treasury and say ‘Okay, when you need more money to borrow against, you can notify us and we’ll disapprove it.’ So they could move forward unless Congress acts to say ‘no.’ The third option would be to just authorize Treasury to borrow whatever sums that are necessary in order to execute decisions on laws that the Congress has passed and that the president has signed into law. Now, up until 1917 Congress approved every borrowing in the federal government but just got to be—after World War I, and then World War II and the government got bigger—It was not practical. So we arrived at this solution it was really a mechanical solution and it’s separate from the decisions that Congress makes on the budget and the allocation. Part of the problem is you know, two thirds of the federal government’s budgets are on automatic pilot, it doesn’t even go through the appropriation process, so there’s no real look. Now one recommendation that I’ve formally made except orally, is another improvement I think would be if Congress would agree on, what the debt to GDP ratio should really be. What are we really willing to tolerate right now? It’s sort of it is what it is. And we don’t plan or manage on a budget standpoint and there are many things that aren’t accounted for in the budget process—major disasters for example. A lot of our fiscal exposures aren’t accounted for in the budget. These estimates I was talking about with Senator Romney about earlier aren’t even considering if we have a recession, there’s another war, or there’s all the other major catastrophes and disasters and so Congress doesn’t have a game plan.  

Lankford: Last year I was on the Budget Reform Committee. It was an ad hoc committee—eight Democrats, eight Republicans—trying to be able to find a solution to how we fix the budgeting process. Obviously, the debt ceiling was a major portion of that. It was very unfortunate that after a year’s worth of work that that failed at the end, and it was really a trust issue—is the reason that it failed at the end in December. I’ve talked to the Budget Committee about reviving some of those same issues—Senator Enzi is very committed to that, Senator Whitehouse—there are several others are committed to getting that done. So I’m hopeful that we can address that, but one of the things that came out of it was our blunt conversations with CBO when they said if you want to keep debt to GDP at 78 percent where it is right now, it doesn’t get worse—and it’s already bad. Obviously $22 trillion in debt is bad—78 percent debt to GDP is bad. If you want to just keep it at bad, you have to either increase taxes or decrease spending by $400 billion a year, every single year for the next 30 years. I think most of our colleagues don’t realize that we’ve already tipped over. There is this ‘Is there a tipping point?’ We’re over the tipping point. We’re on the other side of it now. There is no will in Congress to raise taxes or decrease spending by $400 billion a year this year, much less every year single year for the next 30 years. Just to be able to keep the status quo to where we are debt to GDP. And so I appreciate you raising this. Debt ceiling is a portion of the conversation. It used to be a useful tool. Now it’s a destabilizing tool that’s there in the arsenal and will continue to be an issue for us.

On Tribal issues and the high-risk list (5:26)

Lankford: I want to bounce a couple of other issues—and Senator Peters has some additional questions, and I’ll probably have some additional as well. You raised the issue of Tribal issues on your high-risk list for both the federal government’s engagement with Tribes and Tribal members. I’d like to be able to finish that conversation as well. There is some progress in areas, and I’m grateful to be able to see. But I saw none of them as being met at this point.

Dodaro: Yeah, that’s correct. I mean there’s been some progress, and we got some immediate attention right after we put it on our high-risk list in 2017 with the update at that point in time. Well there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done in that area and we need to see some consistent leadership. You know, we put on a healthcare area, the education area, and then allowing them to use energy resources on their lands. We’ve seen improvements in each of the areas but they’re not at the met level yet.

Lankford: Have you looked at the coordination agency to agency because if you look at Tribal connections in responsibilities, obviously it’s not just BIA, BIE, it’s every agency has a Tribal component to it as well on how they’re actually working together for a strategic focus.

Dodaro: Yeah, this is Mr. Mark Gaffigan. He’s head of our natural resources and environment team who handles our coordination—GAO—for Indian issues.

Gaffigan: Yeah Senator, I think you are absolutely right the coordination issue is key. In December of 2018, the US Commission on Civil Rights issued its most recent report on our commitment to Tribal nations and we’re not meeting our commitment. It’s through a lot of areas—across government—even within GAO we’re talking about doing a more coordinated effort to look at these issues across government to ensure that we are doing a coordinated look at the audit and that the different agencies that are involved—education, healthcare, broadband on Tribal lands, economic development, sustainable communities, environmental. It’s all government, all across the scheme of things, and we’re definitely going to be looking at that.

Lankford: Okay that would be very helpful, because even in areas like criminal justice, BIA will say, ‘Well that’s not really us, that’s DOJ who’s got that.’ And they’ve got that in a certain wing but it doesn’t coordinate actually with BIA and the requests may have four different forms from four different entities to be able to do one thing and no one really knows whose got the ball. And in government as we know, if everyone has the ball then no one has the ball. It’s become a really big issue in our Tribal areas.