GAO chief calls for effort to rethink federal priorities

By David Hatch, National Journal's Technology Daily

The Government Accountability Office on Wednesday released a report calling for a comprehensive re-evaluation of federal spending, including fresh approaches to utilizing technology and boosting the nation's return on its research investments.

The report (GAO-05-325SP) was released at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on transforming government.

At the hearing, senators and U.S. Comptroller General David Walker of the GAO warned that the government needs to dramatically curtail spending to prevent fiscal disaster.

"We've got to face this, and we've got to tighten our belt," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, the ranking Democrat on the committee. He said the budget process "has broken down in Congress."

The GAO report urges the government to examine ways to improve scientific and technological innovation, by such measures as increasing the return on investments in federally funded research, adding incentives to encourage private-sector collaboration, and developing a more technically proficient workforce. In addition, it urges the government to explore using advanced technologies to better protect the nation.

"Based on this report, we are headed toward very troubled waters if we stay on this course," Walker said. "We're on an unsustainable path." Walker, the only witness before the panel, said the government largely operates based on decisions made in the 1950s and 1960s and that the massive review he envisions could take a generation.

"It is time we applied our proven ability to innovate, and our knowledge of transforming government, to the entire spectrum of government itself," said committee Chairwoman Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Walker said the nation has amassed $43 trillion in liabilities and commitments, and if discretionary spending continues to grow at its present rate, federal revenue would be sufficient to only pay the interest on the growing federal debt.

"We have to do something," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. "My heartache is that things will continue as they have.

The powers that be protect themselves."

Echoing those concerns, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., said he worries that there will not be sufficient dollars for programs that citizens need, such as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. But Coburn, noting the empty seats in the hearing room, questioned whether lawmakers are willing to give the issue their full attention.

"The truth is the [room] ought to be packed, and the nation ought to be watching," Lieberman said.