At HSGAC Hearing, Director of GAO Agrees with Portman’s Call for Greater Accountability of Federal Agencies to Address Drug Abuse Epidemic, Workforce Skills Gap & Cybersecurity Attacks

WASHINGTON, DC – This afternoon, the Director of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Mr. Gene Dodaro, agreed with U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), the Ranking Member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, during the 2021 GAO High-Risk Report hearing that there needs to be greater accountability within the federal agencies to address the ongoing drug abuse and misuse epidemic, the workforce skills gap, and the increasing number of cyberattacks on both public and private organizations. 

Senator Portman has been a leader in the Senate in working to address the ongoing drug abuse and opioid epidemic and today he applauded Dodaro and GAO for listing drug abuse and misuse in the High-Risk Report for the first time. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period. Recently, Senator Portman spoke on the Senate floor, highlighting his efforts to respond to this troubling trend. 

In addition, Dodaro agreed with Portman about the need to address the shortage of qualified workers to fill the millions of skilled workforce positions available in America. Portman and U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) co-chairs of the Senate Career and Technical Education (CTE) Caucus, introduced the bipartisan Jumpstart Our Businesses By Supporting Students (JOBS) Act, a bill that would help students access training and close this “skills gap” by expanding Pell Grant eligibility to cover high-quality and rigorous short-term job training programs so workers can afford the skills training and credentials that are in high-demand in today’s job market. 

Finally, Director Dodaro also agreed with Senator Portman that effective cybersecurity leadership and coordination is needed at the federal level. In June 2019, Senator Portman, as Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, released a bipartisan report that found that the vast majority of federal agencies reviewed by the Subcommittee failed to implement effective and comprehensive cybersecurity frameworks. Last year, Senators Portman and Gary Peters (D-MI) introduced the bipartisan Risk-Informed Spending for Cybersecurity (RISC) Act and the Federal System Incident Response Act to require risk-based investments in cybersecurity protections, transparency, and modernize how the government responds to cybersecurity incidents on federal information systems. Senator Portman made it clear that as the federal government responds to and mitigates the impacts of the recent SolarWinds attack, the effective cybersecurity leadership and coordination GAO calls for is critical. 

A transcript of the exchange can be found below and a video can be found here

Portman: “Just a quick question on the high-risk list now including the drug misuse question that you talked about. This has been going on, as you know, for decades and specifically the opioid issue over the last 10-15 years. Why now? Why did you put it on the high-risk list? What has changed?” 

The Honorable Gene Dodaro, Director of the Government Accountability Office: “I was concerned about the escalating rate of overdose deaths and I was also concerned, as been mentioned, I’ve been in government for decades now. This has always been an issue as long as I’ve been present in the government. And I wanted to try to do something about it to raise the profile. I don’t believe we are dealing with the demand side of this issue as much as we need to. We need to deal with interdiction, we need to deal with treatment, of course, but unless we reduce the demand for these products, through education or prevention and other things, we’re never going to make headway. Drugs have always been a problem. The only thing that’s changed has been the drug of choice, and you know what’s happening. And then this prescription drug element that was added to it, brought a different dimension to it as well. So I’m concerned as a father of three and a grandfather of eight, you know I’m concerned about it.” 

Portman: “No, I’m glad you included it this year and I think – one thing I thought you might say is that ONDCP clearly has not followed the national drug policy, which is what you lay out in your report. That they’ve actually missed putting out the strategies they are supposed to put out under law. Specifically, they have statutory requirements that they’re supposed to be talking about in their five-year projections that they have not yet done, so my hope is these recommendations would improve ONDCP’s leadership role. Clarify their mission and make them a better coordinating body so we appreciate your doing that. 

“Second question is with regard to this issue of worker training. I appreciate the fact that you got into that a little bit in your report. I hear back home the same thing now I heard before the pandemic, which is we’re looking for workers – but skilled workers –we can’t find them. So whether it’s a welder, whether it’s an IT professional, a coder, or whether it’s a truck driver, that the skilled workers are in demand again. In fact, there are lots of companies in Ohio that are advertising. I’m told there are more people now looking for work than there have been since the pandemic began, which is good news for the economy but again this same issue that was present before. In terms of how you get at this issue, have you looked much at what the federal government does vis-a-vis someone who wants to go to college versus somebody who wants to get a short-term training program? And shouldn’t there be some more parity there, not to take, for instance, Pell Grants away from colleges or universities at all, but to also offer a Pell if you want to get, what is pretty expensive, but which is a training program that gets you an industry-recognized credential, like a welding degree? And shouldn’t that be something that we should be promoting given our economic need right now and our workforce shortage with skilled workers? Any thoughts on that?” 

Mr. Dodaro: “Yeah, no I agree with you completely. I mean there’s a range of skills that are needed, there are things that people can adapt to. I’ll go back and take a look at that issue, see what we’ve done in the past but I’ll certainly look more carefully at that issue in the future. Same thing is true even with community college degrees and things of that nature. I think that the federal government can diversify. And what we also find, there’s a lot of best practices that occur in some of the worker training programs but the Department of Labor doesn’t share that among the states, so they don’t really have ideas on how they can refine their practices. So we made that recommendation as well. But I agree completely with you and we’ll look more carefully at that issue.” 

Portman: “Great, and the final one that I want to mention is the cyber issue and Senator Peters and I have worked on this issue over time and so frustrating to have this massive hack, and hopefully it’s a wake-up call for all of us but specifically with regard to federal coordination. You talk about the fact that we have yet to fill this position, which is really a White House position, as I understand it, but we also have not given CISA, which the Department of Homeland Security cybersecurity entity, all of the resources it needs along with the authority that we have provided. What’s your thought on that? Who should be coordinating this? We have DOD involved, we obviously have the intelligence agencies involved, and we have DHS involved, we have the White House involved. OMB’s involved to make sure agencies are doing what they’re supposed to do but who should be coordinating and shouldn’t there be more accountability in this process?” 

Mr. Dodaro: “Absolutely. I mean that’s one of the reasons we rated them down. There wasn’t enough accountability and clear delineation in roles and responsibilities. My thought on this is you need a whole of government approach to this issue. CISA can play a very important role, but they don’t decide who appoints the chief information officers in the agencies. They don’t pick the chief information security officers. That’s the agencies who have the responsibilities so they need to be involved. OMB needs to be involved and they haven’t been as involved as they have been in the past and need to be in the future. They can help both in making sure the resource investments are there, properly set out the right policies and guidance to make sure that they get vetted during the budget appropriation process. As a former head of OMB, you recognize how powerful that process can be. 

“I believe – and CISA is basically civilian sides of things. They’re not DOD so you need the National Security Council and DOD involved with the intel agencies. That’s why I think this statutory provision in the White House is so important. The other thing that’s important, Senator, is to get the message out that anybody that touches a federal computer, whether it be a federal employee or contractor, touches the system is a potential risk to the system and introducing malware. So we need a whole of government thing. This has some technical deviations, but in part, in large part, it’s a management problem. An awareness and trying to deal with having the right workforce associated with doing this. So I think you need it at the White House level, CISA plays a role, National Security Council, DOD but also we need to build trust with the private sector to exchange information. We talked a little bit about that this morning at the press event. That is critical because most of the assets, the computing assets are in the private sector hands unless we have sharing between the government and the private sector on a more easily flow basis, we’re never going to get ahead of this issue because it’s like having intelligence, but having it compartmentalized and not sharing it and that’s dangerous.” 

Portman: “Well we want to work with you on this one and I think the report is very helpful but we’ve talked about a legislative response to increase the coordination and accountability, as you say, and I think there’s only so much you can do from the legislative perspective if you authorize the position and it’s not filled, so we also need to put pressure on the administration to step up. I assume that they would want to do that. But thank you again for all your work, we look forward to continuing to work with you every day on these issues of oversight that are a critical part of the mission of this Committee.”