Dear Senators Reed and Braun:

On behalf of the R Street Institute, I request that as Senate appropriators consider Fiscal Year 2022 funding levels, special consideration and additional funds be afforded to the Legislative Branch and the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Good policy starts with good governance. In order to restore the rightful role and effectiveness of our First Branch, Congress, and the agencies that support it, must receive the resources necessary to keep pace with the size and scope of our federal government.

The GAO, which celebrates its 100th birthday this year, plays a key role in helping Congress execute its primary responsibility: the Power of the Purse. Without the constant oversight and vigilance of the GAO, Congress would have a poor understanding of what happens to taxpayer dollars after the ink is dry on the latest appropriations bill. The GAO is Congress’ watchdog, sniffing out misuse of funds and recommending reforms that could improve outcomes and decrease wasteful spending to the tune of tens of billions of dollars a year.[1]

As the federal government has grown, the GAO’s work has become an increasingly essential—and increasingly burdensome—task. Unfortunately, the funding they need to maintain a suitable, sustainable workforce has not been expanded in line with the level of work they are expected to perform. For nearly two decades, Congress has not responded appropriately to the conflict between congressional demands and understaffing, a situation that is exacerbated when massive new programs and spending come online during emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic. Comptroller Generals have repeatedly testified to the deleterious effects of understaffing on GAO’s ability to respond to Congressional requests in a timely manner.

In FY 2020, the GAO had a staff of 3,250 full time equivalent (FTE) employees responsible for almost $6.6 trillion in outlays—about four times as great as the outlays in FY 2000.[2] FTE growth in that time has increased by only around 17 percent—and GAO appropriations as a share of those total outlays continues to shrink.

This trend has troubling implications for Congress’s ability to conduct oversight and make informed spending and policy decisions. As mandates and requests from Congress continue to outpace resources, the GAO will need to prioritize only those requests directly from committees or subcommittees. This will hamstring access to information for less powerful members and limit their ability to engage in the public policy process. In addition, the career pipeline at the GAO will suffer from a lack of expertise and diversity without a consistent flow of new staff.

The legislative branch has, for many years, been the poor cousin of appropriations. Chronic underfunding has led to many problems that hinder congressional capacity, GAO overwork among them. As the First Branch, Congress should not undermine its own effectiveness as a body.

Increasing legislative branch funding so that congressional staff, the GAO and other support agencies can meet their responsibilities does not require breaking the bank any further. Every year the GAO itself identifies reforms that could provide billions of dollars in savings that would be more than sufficient to enhance congressional capacity and improve governance.[3]

Instead of simply increasing spending across the board, Congress should enact GAO recommendations and reexamine funding priorities to make sure the watchdog can keep up with the federal system it guards. As the First Branch, Congress should not just be getting appropriators’ scraps.

Sincerely,

Jonathan Bydlak
Director and Resident Senior Fellow, Governance
R Street Institute

[1] Office of Public Affairs, “It’s a Federal Birthday: GAO Celebrates 100 Years of Non-partisan, Fact-Based Service to Congress and the Nation,” U.S. Government Accountability Office, Jan. 4, 2021. https://www.gao.gov/press-release/100years.

[2]  Testimony of Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro, U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Fiscal Year 2020 Budget Request,” 116th Congress, Feb. 27, 2019. https://www.gao.gov/assets/gao-19-403t.pdf.

[3]  2020 Annual Report: Additional Opportunities to Reduce Fragmentation, Overlap, and Duplication and Achieve Billions in Financial Benefits, U.S. Government Accountability Office, May 19, 2020. https://files.gao.gov/reports/d230106/index.html.