Billions of dollars in federal funds remain unused

Government waste isn't always about overspending. A new oversight report reveals that more than $70 billion in federal funds were left unspent years after being appropriated by Congress due to poorly drafted laws, bureaucracy and mismanagement.

Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-Okla.) newly released report “Money for Nothing” highlights how billions of dollars to fund high-priority programs, such as one aimed at helping victims of Hurricane Katrina, were left sitting in expired accounts and never used for their original purpose.

The report found that close to 1 in 3 highway dollars earmarked for highway projects since 1991 had not been spent as of 2011, accounting for about $13 billion. The Emergency Homeowners Loan Program also failed to pay out more than a half of its $1 billion budget -- even as thousands of those eligible for assistance were denied aid. Additionally, more than $100 million in federal aid was never spent in Detroit, Mich., to provide educational assistance to students in underperforming schools.

Nearly one-fourth of the $35 billion the Homeland Security Department awarded to state and local governments over the past nine years for disaster preparedness and recovery has also not been spent, the report stated.

“Much like a procrastinating college student, Congress waits until the last minute to do its work, like passing legislation to extend the authorization of important programs, or does not do its homework, including reading or reviewing bill text, before rushing through far reaching legislation,” Coburn writes in the report. "The result is often shoddy written laws that are difficult to interpret or carry out as intended, sometimes leaving millions or billions of dollars sitting unspent for decades.”

Unclear and narrow eligibility requirements not only resulted in billions of federal dollars being unspent but in some cases Congress extended authority to spend the money indefinitely. Another case showed that some projects received too much money, while others received funds to projects that were either canceled or abandoned.

These “legislative blunders,” Coburn said, had serious consequences, including funds being diverted from other priorities, increased spending and a dip in citizens’ trust in government.

About the Author

Camille Tuutti is a former FCW staff writer who covered federal oversight and the workforce.

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