WASHINGTON - The next time you hear government officials insist they're doing all they can to save federal money or ensure safety, consider this: the U.S. Transportation Department has yet to complete more than 600 action items, some dating back to 2004, that were recommended by its internal watchdog to help protect taxpayers.
That eye-popping statistic is contained in a little-noticed letter that DOT Inspector General Calvin L. Scovell III sent to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform over the Christmas holidays.
The "open recommendations" -- as they are called in bureaucratic parlance -- are fixes identified by the inspector general to improve safety or prevent hundreds of millions of dollars of future waste, fraud and abuse that have not been fully implemented and documented, or have been outright rejected by federal agencies.
At the Transportation Department, which spends between $70 billion and $100 billion a year on highways, bridges, railroads and airports, there are lots of fixes lined up on the tarmac waiting for takeoff. And the backlog has grown by about a third since the spring of 2011 alone.
"As of December 10, 2012, we identified a total of 637 open recommendations, which were included in 217 audit reports issued between September 2004 and November 2012," Scovell's office wrote the oversight committee chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif. "We considered several criteria in identifying the open recommendations as the highest priorities, including their impact on safety, economy, or efficiency; documented vulnerabilities; dollar implications; and the ability of the Department to effect change in these programs or areas."
Among the highest-priority fixes that have yet to be implemented are proposals to analyze pilot fatigue to prevent accidents like a 2009 commuter crash blamed on tired pilots, better coordination and planning for the $1 billion next generation air safety system and improved auditing to identify and reclaim unused transportation grants.
Some fixes have huge potential benefits. For instance, a recent audit identified more than $2 billion in DOT grant monies that were sitting on the books but had not been used. "These are idle funds that DOT agencies can use for other projects to improve transportation infrastructure and create jobs," Scovell's letter emphasized.
Transportation Department spokesman Bill Adams declined comment Wednesday, referring to the IG's letter that stated Transportation officials were working on some of the highest priority problems with a goal of implementing fixes in 2013.
The dynamic at the Transportation Department is being repeated all across government, even as Congress and the White House struggle to reach a deal to cut spending to avert the government from going over the "fiscal cliff" next Monday. In fact, inspectors general at various federal agencies have told Issa's committee about thousands of unresolved fixes since 2009 that could save taxpayers tens of billions of dollars over the next several years.
"The administration is asking Congress to raise taxes on the American people so they can spend more money while at the same time leaving tens of billions on the table already identified by nonpartisan government watchdogs," Issa told the Washington Guardian. "When the recommendations of inspectors general are ignored, taxpayers are left with a more expensive and less effective federal government."
Congress created inspectors general at various federal agencies more than three decades ago to act as independent watchdogs to root out waste, fraud and abuse from government spending. The IGs and their staffs conduct hundreds of audits a year, acting as sirens for problems ranging from waste in the stimulus program to ethical lapses among Pentagon officials.
But as the size of federal spending has ballooned in an era of trillion-dollar annual deficits, the IGs' work hasn't always garnered the response it needs from top Cabinet agency officials, the White House or Congress.
For instance, there currently are vacancies at a half-dozen major federal agencies that don't have a Senate-confirmed inspector general, either because Congress hasn't approved or President Barack Obama hasn't nominated them. The vacancies include such big-spending agencies as the Pentagon and the Interior Department, according to the IGNet.gov Web site.
And the backlog of pending solutions is also growing at some agencies.
Scovell reported to Issa in April 2011 that the number of open DOT recommendations stood at 425. A year later, the number had grown to 536 and this month to 637, an increase of about a third over 20 months. And the potential benefits to taxpayers if the overdue solutions were implemented were estimated20 months ago at a total of $2 billion at the Transportation Department alone.