Our $14.5 trillion federal debt is one of the biggest challenges facing our nation and one that Congress must address as an urgent priority. I was disappointed when the President recently proposed a budget for October 2011 through September 2012 that does far too little to rein in federal spending and to bring the debt under control. The President’s plan spends and borrows too much, and would put further financial burdens on families and small businesses at a time when we should be doing all we can to make it easier for them to create much-needed jobs.
Congress and the Administration also need to be more vigilant to help ensure that taxpayer dollars are not wasted. We must keep a watchful eye on federal agencies, preventing cost overruns, waste, fraud and abuse, mismanagement and inefficiencies.
As Ranking Member on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, I always have taken this responsibility seriously. One of the oversight tools that I use is the Government Accountability Office (GAO). The GAO serves as Congress’s watchdog. Every two years, the GAO releases a list of "high-risk" federal programs. These are programs most prone to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement. The "high-risk" list is a roadmap for congressional oversight, identifying government programs in need of reform to perform more efficiently and effectively, as well as those that should be restructured or even abolished.
Recently, I joined the Comptroller General, the head of GAO, in releasing the 2011 high-risk list. My first concern was how little the list had changed since it was last released in 2009, and further, how little the list had changed from 2007, 2005, and indeed the last decade. There are chronic poor-performing programs that remain on the list year after year. Improper Medicare and Medicaid payments totaling billions of dollars is a prime example. Aggressive efforts are needed to combat fraud and protect the legitimate recipients of these programs, like the 262,000 Mainers who depend on Medicare to meet their health care needs.
The Postal Service has long appeared on the high-risk list, except for a brief period immediately following the passage of reform legislation that I authored in 2006. And, although the Postal Service has encountered problems not of its making, such as a severe recession and its customers’ increasing use of digital communication, it has also been slow to take advantage of many of the flexibilities and structural changes afforded by the 2006 law. All these factors combined have put the Postal Service in a dire financial situation. I have introduced legislation that would help the Postal Service regain its financial footing and adapt to the digital age.
An unfortunate newcomer to this year’s high-risk list is the federal government’s cyber security. In March 2010, the Senate Sergeant at Arms reported that the computer systems of Congress and the Executive Branch agencies are now under attack an average of 1.8 billion times per month. And, cyber crime costs our national economy an estimated $8 billion per year. Our nation’s current cyber security efforts are disjointed and uncoordinated at best. I recently joined Senators Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and Tom Carper (D-DE) in introducing legislation that addresses the challenges facing our nation from incoming cyber threats and that specifically prohibits the President from shutting down the Internet.
In the wake of a recent report done by our committee, it is disappointing, but not surprising, that effective information sharing of terrorist threats remains on this year’s high-risk list. The FBI’s failure to share critical threat information on Major Nidal Hasan with the Department of Defense cost our nation its last, best chance to prevent the attack at Fort Hood in November 2009. Major Hasan posed a deadly threat that with improved terrorism-related information sharing might have been thwarted.
Another area of concern the high-risk list brought attention to was the 2010 Census. It has come off the list because of its completion, but its technical problems and cost overruns have in no way been solved. The Census Bureau needs to be diligent as many of the problems with computers and contracts were firmly established seven, eight and nine years before the 2010 count.
The 2011 high-risk list gives us a renewed focus on what federal programs deserve more scrutiny and reforms to better serve the American taxpayer. Now that these programs have been identified, it is crucial that Congress and the Administration work together to cut wasteful spending, curb fraud, and make government programs more efficient and effective.