How Many Federal Government Programs Are There?

Much like the question of how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop, it seems the world may never know how many federal government programs exist.

It’s a sign of just how large the federal government is, and potentially how wasteful, that no one can actually point to the total number of federal programs. Though the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) Modernization Act of 2010 requires a single, comprehensive list of federal programs, with a due date of October 1, 2012, one has yet to materialize. Is this undertaking lost to the public forever as the federal government continues to grow?

Not if a bipartisan group of senators has anything to say about it. Last week, they urged the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to make good on a seven-year-old requirement to put a list of all federal programs on one, public website. Led by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Senator James Lankford (R-OK), the group includes eleven other Republican senators and four Democratic senators.

Their letter to OMB Director Mick Mulvaney explains the stakes:

“Successful implementation of the requirement is critical to helping Congress make informed budgetary decisions and ensuring that we are able to identify - and take appropriate steps to eliminate - duplication, fragmentation, and overlap in federal programs.”

Right now, information on programs is spread across dozens of federal agency websites and documents. It’s impossible for anyone, especially an ordinary member of the public, to pull together the information necessary to identify duplicative federal programs. The Obama administration made note of this problem in its (uncompleted) effort to build a federal program inventory:

“Federal agencies regularly report program information to the public – through their websites, congressional budget justifications, the Catalogue of Federal Domestic Assistance, and other means. But this information is often decentralized.”

OMB has delayed implementation of the list for a number of reasons over the years, but, as the senators’ letter outlines, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has regularly offered guidance to OMB that would help them successfully build and maintain a program inventory. Indeed, the letter asks OMB to share its status on implementing GAO’s recommendations from 2014 and 2017.

Building and publishing a federal program list is only a start to effectively advocating for taxpayers. Lawmakers will then need to eliminate or merge duplicative programs, and should continue to seek prudent spending cuts that make government leaner and more efficient. This letter, though, is the start to putting a federal program inventory back on the agenda.