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Sen. Tom Coburn (Associated Press/Photo by Sue Ogrocki)

'Mother lode'

Congress | A new report from the GAO identifies billions in wasteful government spending

WASHINGTON-If you were to order a plate of catfish and shrimp for dinner tonight, one federal agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, would regulate the catfish, but another, the Food and Drug Administration, would regulate the shrimp.

Fifteen agencies oversee food safety in the United States. Eighty-two different government programs focus on improving teacher quality, 56 programs help average citizens with financial literacy, and 31 agencies address soldiers' urgent needs. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) published its first report Tuesday detailing examples like these amounting to billions in wasteful government spending. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., called it a "mother lode of government waste," and estimated the potential savings amounted to at least $100 billion. Coburn attached the statute requiring the GAO report on wasteful government spending when Congress raised the debt ceiling last year.

"This report confirms what most Americans assume about their government," Coburn said in a statement. "We are spending trillions of dollars every year and nobody knows what we are doing. The executive branch doesn't know. The congressional branch doesn't know. Nobody knows."

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The report comes at a critical time, when Congress is debating a spending bill for the remainder of the current fiscal year and forming a budget for fiscal year 2012. With the news that the government is wasting billions across the board, President Obama likely will have a tougher time fending off budget cuts.

The GAO-the independent, investigative arm of Congress-identified 34 areas where the government is duplicating its efforts. But the investigation only centered on a slice of government programs, and the report acknowledged that it does not represent "the full universe of duplication, overlap, or fragmentation within the federal government." It identified another 47 areas where the government could save money or increase its revenue. This is the first of what is supposed to be an annual report.

Federal agencies have no obligation to change their programs as a result of the report, and Congress has no obligation to act. Much of the wasteful spending identified in the new report comes from the Defense Department-an area of the budget that both Democrats and Republicans have historically been hesitant to touch. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made cutting waste one of his central missions, promising last year to identify $100 billion in savings over the next five years. But Gates isn't asking for a budget cut; he wants to use the savings from wasteful spending in other areas of the department that more desperately need funding from waging wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the current mood in the House is such that even defense spending is on the chopping block: In February the House slashed all funding to develop an engine for an F-35 joint strike fighter.

"Enough is enough," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in response to the report Tuesday. He called for Congress to "get our fiscal house in order. . . . We're going to deal with the pressing issues of regulatory waste in our agencies as well as the long-term issues facing our country in the entitlement programs."

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

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