Could Programs on GAO's High-Risk List be Targets for Budget Cuts?

Posted by Angie Petty on March 7, 2017

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GAO recently released its 2017 list of high-risk programs, which are those most vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse, mismanagement, or those that need to attain more efficiency or effectiveness.

In light of the Trump administration’s recent announcement regarding its budget plan to boost defense spending by $54 billion and cut non-defense spending by the same amount, could these high-risk programs be a starting point for budget cuts?

Below is the 2017 GAO list of high-risk programs:

GAO considers “whether the program or function is of national significance or is key to performance and accountability,” in order to determine whether a program should be added to the high-risk list. GAO also assesses whether the program risk involves public health or safety, service delivery, national security, privacy or citizens’ rights, or program failure. Additionally, GAO considers monetary or other quantitative losses. “At a minimum, $1 billion must be at risk, in areas such as the value of major assets being impaired … or evidence of improper payments,” according to the report.

If we look at the list of programs as potential places to cut federal spending, we can begin by ruling out mission areas that the administration has promised to strengthen, such as Department of Defense, veteran care, and cybersecurity.

Cursory observations based on the nature of the programs and the administration’s agenda lead us to the following thoughts as far as consideration for potential budget cuts.  The programs below appear on the high-risk list and their missions seem to run counter to the Trump administration’s stated priorities:

  • Limiting the Federal Government’s Fiscal Exposure by Better Managing Climate Change Risks
  • Improving Federal Programs that Serve Tribes and their Members
  • U.S. Government Environmental Liabilities
  • Improving Federal Oversight of Food Safety
  • Transforming EPA’s Processes for Assessing and Controlling Toxic Chemicals
  • Enforcement of Tax Laws

For example, GAO recommends limiting the government’s fiscal exposure by better managing climate change risks. GAO states that increasing the nation’s ability to respond to a changing climate can be viewed as an insurance policy against climate change risks.  They go on to say “the nation can reduce its vulnerability by limiting the magnitude of climate change through actions to limit greenhouse gas emissions.”  However, if the current administration does not recognize climate change as a viable problem, these existing federal programs may be in jeopardy.  The president has spoken openly about his doubts regarding global warming and climate change.  In January, the Trump administration told the EPA to remove the climate change page from its website. 

Additionally from the above list, GAO recommends transforming EPA’s processes for assessing and controlling toxic chemicals.  However, there are efforts underway in the current Congress that could do away with the EPA altogether.

GAO also includes enforcement of tax laws on the high-risk list, because “IRS’s capacity to implement new initiatives, carry out ongoing enforcement and taxpayer service programs, and combat identity theft (IDT) refund fraud under an uncertain budgetary environment remains a challenge.”  President Trump’s plan to bring back jobs and growth “starts with pro-growth tax reform to help American workers and businesses keep more of their hard-earned dollars” according to the White House website. The president’s plan would simplify the complex tax code. If this is the case, then could the IRS potentially carry out tax enforcement without additional moneys?

Details regarding the president’s FY 2018 budget have not surfaced to date.  However, the ability to fund the administration’s priorities while making efforts to lower the deficit will have to come at the cost of massive budget cuts in other areas.

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