Federal agencies often lose track of all that money, GAO audit finds

By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org

When anyone talks about government picking winners and losers, they usually mean the process in which officials hand out special favors to the politically connected.

It could be taxpayer dollars in the form of a grant or loan. It could be a special tax break or exemption. It could be a special contract that funnels government spending to one company instead of another. It’s all just another day’s work for the politicians, bureaucrats and cronies that make the political system go round.

IT’S ALL IN THERE SOMEWHERE: More than 2,000 federal agencies and departments have the authority to spend tax dollars. But are they accurately reporting what they spend?I

Luckily, all that spending has to be recorded somewhere. Every federal dollar that goes out the door is attached to a contract, which, thanks to the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, must be listed on the federal government’s public website.

If you have the time and absolutely nothing better to do with it, you could read every word of every contract the government has awarded since 2006. But you’d probably be reading a work of fiction.

According to a new audit, federal agencies in fiscal 2012 failed to properly report more than $619 billion in federal spending in the form of awards, grants and loans.

Our examination of awards identified significant underreporting of awards and few that contained information that was fully consistent with the information in agency records,” auditors from the Government Accountability Office concluded.

The GAO estimates “between 2 percent and 7 percent” of all awards granted by the federal government are accurately detailed on USASpending.gov. In many cases, the inconsistencies were rather small — a data field left blank or other missing information that left GAO auditors unable to match records on the website with contracts handed out by the various government agencies, for example. Others aren’t so small.

THE DATABASE IS MISSING SOME DATA: The GAO found “significant underreporting of awards and few that contained information that was fully consistent with the information in agency records.”

Among one of the more common problems, according to the GAO: About a quarter of all federal awards it reviewed failed to detail the state where the spending was supposed to occur, as required by law. It’s not the first time the federal government has had a hard time remembering where it spent its money.

During the hey-day of the federal stimulus in 2009, more than $6 billion was awarded to congressional districts that didn’t exist, according to the website set up by the feds to monitor stimulus spending.

In this case, many agencies and departments told the GAO they did not receive detailed information about how and where to document their spending. The Treasury Department, which oversees the USASpending.gov website, told the GAO it would take the audit’s findings “into consideration,” but it failed to offer further comment. Calls for comment were not returned.

But, so far, they haven’t done much. The GAO identified many of the same problems with the website in a 2010 audit — problems that were supposedly addressed by new rules issued by the Office of Budget and Management, the budgetary arm of the White House, in 2012.

“Many of the specific issues we first identified in 2010, such as unclear award titles and inaccurate information on place of performance, continue to limit the reliability of USASpending.gov data,” the auditors found.

“Until these issues are addressed, any effort to validate USASpending.gov data will be hampered by uncertainties about the accuracy of the data.”

The audit also gives a glimpse at the sheer size of the government checkbook. Of the 37 governmental agencies with the budgetary authority to spend at least $400 million during 2012, 33 awarded at least one contract. In all, the federal government awarded contracts through 1,390 different programs — out of the then-2,183 programs listed in the federal catalog, which is like Victoria’s Secret for anyone who makes a living off taxpayer-funded programs and expenditures.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services leads the way, perhaps not surprisingly, with 463 separate programs by which it can award grants, loans, contracts or otherwise distribute taxpayer money.

At the other end of the scale are agencies most Americans probably never heard of, such as the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation, the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board and the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission.

Boehm can be reached at EBoehm@Watchdog.org and follow @WatchdogORG on twitter for more.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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