WASHINGTON – Federal programs involving food safety, transportation spending and technology security were added Wednesday to a congressional "high risk" list, meaning their inefficiencies leave them vulnerable to fraud, waste and abuse.
Those programs joined 24 others on the high risk list updated every two years since 1990 by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative wing of Congress. As in the past, the list was dominated by defense-related programs and operations.
The GAO dropped two programs on the list: The U.S. Postal Service, named in 2001, was removed because of successes in reducing its debts and the enactment of legislation to modernize its operations, as was a Housing and Urban Development single-family mortgage insurance program.
Removal of the HUD program after 13 years on the list was "a historic achievement," said GAO Comptroller General David M. Walker. "In many ways HUD was the face of the high risk list." The report said the amount of estimated improper rent subsidies under the program was reduced by 58 percent between 2000 and 2005.
The report said federal oversight of food safety was listed because "the current fragmented federal system has caused inconsistent oversight, ineffective coordination and inefficient use of resources."
Walker gave as an example the fact there are different agencies regulating meat pizza and cheese pizza.
The report noted that most federal funding goes to the Agriculture Department, which is responsible for regulating about 20 percent of the food supply. Meanwhile the Food and Drug Administration, responsible for most of the other 80 percent, gets about 24 percent of expenditures.
It said that, beyond the new threat of terrorist attacks on the food supply, about 325,000 people require hospitalization every year for food-borne illnesses, and 5,000 die.
The report said the government needs a major reassessment of how it finances the nation's transportation system, a traditional source of congressional pork-barrel spending. Revenues from the highway trust fund coming from gas taxes are eroding and there is "little assurance that federal funding is being channeled to the nation's most critical mobility needs."
The GAO named eight federal programs, many dating back to the 1970s, responsible for identifying and protecting critical technologies from theft, espionage and illegal export. Walker said there needs to be a better balance in efforts to promote economic growth and U.S. exports while protecting national security and intellectual property rights.
The Pentagon was cited for inadequacies in programs involving weapon systems acquisition, supply chain management, personnel security and contract management. The Department of Homeland Security was also criticized for not doing enough since its post 9/11 creation to coordinate work and share information among its different components.
"I am struck and troubled by the number of government operations that relate to defense and homeland security," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, a member of the committee, urged creation of a new chief management officer position at the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security to deal with waste and inefficiencies that cost taxpayers billions of dollars and could jeopardize national security.
Among others on the list were the Medicare and Medicaid programs, Internal Revenue Service enforcement of tax laws and business systems modernization, the National Flood Insurance Program and Federal Aviation Administration air traffic control modernization.