GAO: the government's watchdog barks, but does Congress listen?

The federal government could save billions of dollars a year if it would pay more attention to its own watchdog agency, says a study released by the public interest group, Common Cause.

The General Accounting Office (GAO), which investigates waste and fraud in the US government, churns out reports and proposals for cutting costs every month. But Congress and federal agencies often ignore them, says the 57-page study.

Common Cause praises the GAO, which has during the past decade been transformed from a rather meek and mild accounting unit into an overseer that evaluates federal programs to see if they really do what they were intended to do. The GAO now puts out blue-covered studies on subjects ranging from whether the Highway Safety Grant Program is successful, to environmental projects, and the military.

The GAO estimates that it saved taxpayers $2.6 billion in 1979, $2.5 billion in 1978, and $5.7 billion in 1977.

However, Common Cause president David Cohen says that the agency "still has a way to go to reach its full potential as an effective government watchdog."

His group's study found that congressional follow-up on GAO studies is "largely haphazard." Charges the report: "Congress passes laws and appropriates funds but rarely looks back to see if federal programs are accomplishing their intended goals. Members of Congress tend to view oversight as a tedious task with few political payoffs."

Common Cause found similar problems with executive agencies, which are led by presidential appointees who usually serve only a few years and have little incentive to look critically at their programs.

Even the GAO, which has 5,000 employees and an annual budget of $186 million, fails to follow up sufficiently on its own studies, says Common Cause. It lacks both the authority and commitment to enforce the hundreds of recommendations it makes annually. Common Cause cites the GAO's own annual report for 1979, which states that of 95 reports including recommendations for Congress, only three ended in fianl legislative action.

President-elect Ronald Reagan, who campaigned against waste and corruption, will have a chance to greatly influence how the GAO functions over the next decade-and-a-half soon after he takes office.

Comptroller General Elmer Staats will complete his 15-year term next March, and Mr. Reagan will appoint his successor.

Common Cause recommends that the new comptroller general be someone who will "carry on the tradition of Elmer Staats." Other recommendations for strengthening the GAO:

* Require the Office of Management and Budget, an executive agency, to see to it that other agencies cooperate with GAO.

* Congress should keep closer track of GAO reports and set deadlines for responding to them.

* The GAO should continue to upgrade its ability to evaluate programs, and it should improve its follow-up of reports.

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