How to Really Cut Government Spending

Just Stop the Duplication, Overlap, and Fragmentation

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If the U.S. Congress is serious about cutting government spending, it must eliminate duplication, overlap, and fragmentation in federal programs.

That was the message U.S. Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro had for Congress when he told lawmakers that as long as it keeps on spending more money than it collects, the federal government’s long-term fiscal outlook will remain “unsustainable.”

The Extent of the Problem

As Dorado told Congress, the long-term problem has not changed. Every year, the government spends more money on programs like Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment benefits than it takes in through taxes.

According to the 2016 Financial Report of the U.S. Government, the federal deficit increased from $439 billion in fiscal year 2015 to $587 billion in fiscal 2016. Over the same period, a modest $18.0 billion increase in federal revenue was more than offset by a $166.5 billion increase in spending, mainly on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and interest on debt held by the public. The public debt alone rose as a share of gross domestic product (GDP), from 74%at the end of fiscal 2015 to 77% at the end of fiscal 2016. By comparison, the public debt has averaged only 44% of the GDP since 1946.

The 2016 Financial Report, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) all agree that unless policy changes are made, the debt-to-GDP ratio will surpass its historical high of 106% within 15 to 25 years.

Some Near-Term Solutions

While long-term problems require long-term solutions, there are some near-term things Congress and the executive branch agencies can do to improve the government's fiscal condition without eliminating or severely cutting major social benefits programs. For starters, suggested Dodaro, addressing improper and fraudulent benefits payments and the tax gap, as well as dealing with duplication, overlap, and fragmentation in those programs.

On May 3, 2017, the GAO released its seventh annual report on fragmentation, overlap, and duplication among federal programs. In its ongoing investigations, the GAO looks for aspects of programs that could save taxpayer money by eliminating:

  • Duplication: circumstances in which more than one federal agency, or more than one organization within an agency, is involved in the same broad area of national need and opportunities for more efficient service delivery exist;
  • Overlap: when multiple agencies or programs have similar or identical goals, engage in similar activities or strategies to achieve them, or target similar beneficiaries; and
  • Fragmentation: circumstances in which more than one federal agency is involved in the same broad area of national need.

As a result of the agencies’ efforts to fix the cases of duplication, overlap, and fragmentation identified in the GAO’s first six such reports issued from 2011 to 2016, the federal government has already saved an estimated $136 billion, according to Comptroller General Dodaro.

In its 2017 report, the GAO identified 79 new cases of duplication, overlap, and fragmentation in 29 new areas across the government such as health, defense, homeland security, and foreign affairs

By continuing to address, duplication, overlap, and fragmentation, and without entirely eliminating a single program, the GAO estimates the federal government could save “tens of billions.”

Examples of Duplication, Overlap, and Fragmentation

A few of the 79 new cases of wasteful program administration identified by the GAO its latest report on duplication, overlap, and fragmentation included:

  • Sexual Violence Data: The Departments of Defense, Education, Health and Human Services (HHS), and Justice (DOJ) currently manage at least 10 different programs indented to collect data on sexual violence. The duplication and fragmentation results on wasted effort and a lack of understanding of the scope of the problem in the United States.
  • Federal Grants Awards: The National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, Food and Nutrition Service, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lack processes to ensure that their grants do not fund duplicate or overlapping programs already being funded by other agencies.
  • Foreign-Assistance Data Quality: As a key step to addressing the potential overlap in the collection and reporting of foreign-assistance information, the Department of State, in consultation with the U.S. Agency for International Development and OMB, needs to improve data quality to ensure consistency in publically available information on how foreign aid is distributed and used.
  • Military Commissaries: By better managing and coordinating purchasing for it commissaries across all military branches, the Department of
    Defense could save an estimated $2 billion.
  • Storage of Defense and Commercial Nuclear Waste: By better coordinating the agencies collecting data and analyzing options for the permanent storage of military high-level nuclear waste and commercial spent nuclear fuel, the Department of Energy could potentially save tens of billions of dollars.

Between 2011 and 2016, the GAO recommended 645 actions in 249 areas for Congress or executive branch agencies to reduce, eliminate, or better manage fragmentation, overlap, or duplication; or increase revenue. By the end of 2016, Congress and executive branch agencies had addressed 329 (51%) of those actions resulting in about $136 billion in savings. According to Comptroller General Dodaro, by fully implementing the recommendations made in the GAO’s 2017 report, the government could save “tens of billions more dollars.” 

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Longley, Robert. "How to Really Cut Government Spending." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Longley, Robert. (2021, February 16). How to Really Cut Government Spending. Retrieved from Longley, Robert. "How to Really Cut Government Spending." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 28, 2023).