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Chicken Little feds ignored IG ideas for savings worth $67 billion last year

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News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten

Officials who claim automatic sequestration spending reductions will slash the federal budget to the bone could have instead heeded suggestions last year from government watchdogs that would have saved more than $67 billion, according to a congressional report released today.

Inspectors general who root out waste and fraud in federal agencies produced more than 16,900 recommendations in 2012 that have not been implemented, the report from the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform said.

Big-ticket recommendations range from better planning of technology purchases to recouping money awarded to projects that get cancelled or delayed.

The report was produced for an oversight committee hearing Tuesday. But the debate quickly drifted from the IG's findings to whether agencies were hyping the pain Americans will feel because of the $85 billion in sequestration cuts that took effect last week.

Republicans grilled witnesses from two agencies - education and transportation - about whether they are deliberately trying to make the budget reductions as painful as possible for political purposes.

Committee Democrats echoed President Obama's pitch that raising taxes is necessary to protect against devastating cuts to federal programs such as education aid to local schools and critical road projects.

Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., was one of the few who honed in on the waste that IGs have identified but agency administrators have failed to address. Regardless of the sequestration battle, those dollars are being squandered because of inaction, he said.

"You've got money left on the table, but yet in a hearing like this, at a time when there are real cuts going on, it's now time to squeal," Collins said of the dire claims coming from agencies in response to the sequester.

"The American people are frustrated here. They don't understand $67 billion left on the table."

In 2009, there were less than 11,000 pending recommendations that could have saved the government about $29.6 billion. The number of recommendations that agencies have not embraced, and the value of the savings, has risen steadily every year since, according to the new report.

The agency with the most potential savings from IG recommendations is the U.S. Postal Service, which could trim almost $14.5 billion, according to the report, which did not list specific recommendations for each agency.

The Department of Health and Human Services could save almost $11.6 billion by adopting its IG's recommendations. Other agencies with big potential savings include the Internal Revenue Service, $10.7 billion; Social Security Administration, $8.1 billion; and Department of Agriculture, $5.6 billion.

John Porcari, deputy transportation secretary, said the agency did implement more than 500 recommendations from its IG last year, saving more than $1 billion. Other recommended changes are in progress, he said.

Another $1.9 billion in potential savings have not been implemented by the agency, according to the committee report.

Meanwhile, agency warnings of painful consequences from sequestration also drew a rebuke from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

In a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Coburn said rather than cutting food safety inspectors, as Vilsack has warned, the agency should cancel unnecessary spending on conferences and travel.

Coburn singled out two planned USDA conferences that will feature guest chefs, and wine and food tasting sessions.

"While these conferences may be fun, interesting and even educational getaways for department employees, food inspecting rather than food tasting should be USDA's priority at this time," Coburn wrote.

The House oversight committee released a report last week showing federal agencies spent more than $340 million on large conferences last year. That figure is only for events costing more than $100,000.

Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's Watchdog investigative reporting team. He can be reached at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com.

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