$3,400,000,000,000 Of Taxpayers' Money Is Missing

By August Gribbin
April 1, 1999


The U.S. Government can't balance its books and can't properly explain how it spent $1.8 trillion last year or account for $1.6 trillion in such assets as parks, buildings, missile launchers, tanks and paper clips.

That's $1,800,000,000,000 in dollars and $1,6000,000,000,000 worth of things--a grand total of $3,4000,000,000,000.

The upshot is that, "once again, billions of taxpayer dollars were lost to waste, fraud and mismanagement," says Rep. Steve Horn, California Republican.

Mr. Horn, chairman of the House government reform and oversight subcommitte on government management, information and technology, gave that assessment yesterday as his subcommitte reviewed the government's attempt to produce a Consolidated Financial Statement.

It was the second time in U.S. History that the government has tried to comply with a 1994 law requiring it to account in a businesslike way for the revenues, expenditures and assets of the 24 Cabinet-level departments and agencies--a total of 70 agencies with some 2000 components.

And for the second time, the statement failed to meet accounting standards acceptable to the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm and the government's official auditor.

The accounting failure means the government doesn't employ common business safeguards to know how much money actually has been wasted or stolen. Some lawmakers believe the figure could be in the billions.

In general, the GAO concluded that "because of the serious deficiencies in the government's systems, record-keeping, documentation, financial reporting and controls, amounts reported in the financial statements...do not provide a reliable source of information for decision-making by the government or the public."

Mr. Horn calls the accounting performance "dismal." And Rep. Pete Sessions, Texas Republican, who has been working for management reform in the executive branch, said the lack of reliable information has made him feel "like a doctor performing surgery with a blindfold on."

Still, the government's accounting has improved. Last year, the GAO approved audits of just 11 agencies. This year it's expected to give "unqualified opinions" to 13.

Comptroller General David M. Walker said that although "major obstacles need to be overcome...considerable effort is being made by agencies...and steady improvements in financial accountability are occuring."

G. Edward DeSeve, deputy director for management of the Office of Management and Budget, concurred. "The [Clinton] administration supported and created the bill to cause these [accounting] requirements and in time they will provide a tremendous management tool," he said.

For that to happen, the executive branch must "properly account for and report billions of dollars of property, equipment, materials and supplies," Mr. Walker testified.

It also must correctly estimate the costs of environmental and nuclear cleanups and determine the amount of such liabilities as veterans and health benefits.

The executive branch must bolster "serious and widespread computer security weaknesses," as well as figure out the "full extent" of the estimated billions of dollars improperly paid in major programs.

And finally, Mr. Walker said, the government must "accurately report" a basic fact for the first time--the net cost of running the government.