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Multiple military camouflage uniforms an example of government waste, GAO finds

Four different branches of the U.S. military are spending millions of dollars to equip troops with combat uniforms in seven different but similar camouflage patterns, says the Government Accountability Office, wasting money and potentially exposing some troops to increased risk on the battlefield.

That’s one of the findings in the GAO’s latest report on government waste, its third annual report on overlapping, redundant and/or wasteful federal government programs and spending. (GAO is the independent, nonpartisan investigative and auditing agency that works for Congress.)

The report identifies 31 new areas in the federal government "where agencies may be able to achieve greater efficiency or effectiveness" – 17 areas where the GAO found evidence of "fragmentation, overlap or duplication" and 14 where it found opportunities for significant cost savings and "revenue enhancement."

On combat uniforms, the GAO found that the military services “employ a fragmented approach” in acquiring them.

Have a look at the visual included in the report (below). It shows images of seven different camouflage patterns for uniforms separately ordered by the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines.

Government Accountability Office

Before 2002, all the military services had used only two basic camouflage patterns – one woodland pattern and one desert pattern.

Contracting separately for similar uniforms, GAO says, has resulted in “numerous inventories of similar uniforms at increased cost to the supply chain.”

GAO found that if the services partnered together in procuring uniforms, the Defense Department could save tens of millions of dollars.

Previously the Army has estimated it could save $82 million by partnering, and the Navy has estimated it could save $6 million.

Spending watchdog groups say the uniform waste is one example of a widespread problem.

“When you look at combat fatigues it's like a microcosm of the whole problem,” says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog group. “Combat fatigues are an example of how, left to its own devices, government creates more complication, and it's up to Congress to reign them in and to make them concentrate and only do one thing.”

Of the 31 new areas the GAO identified, here are a few examples of areas the GAO found with overlap and duplication:

  • Drug abuse prevention and treatment programs: “Federal drug abuse prevention and treatment programs are fragmented across 15 federal agencies … in fiscal year 2012, about $4.5 billion was allocated to these 15 agencies that administer 76 programs that are, in all or in part, intended to prevent or treat illicit drug use or abuse.”
  • Renewable energy initiatives: “23 agencies and their 130 sub-agencies implemented 679 renewable energy initiatives in fiscal year 2010…9 agencies implemented 82 overlapping duplicative wind-related initiatives in fiscal year 2011 … including 7 initiatives that have provided duplicative … financial support to the same recipient for a single project.”

Here are a few examples of areas GAO found with significant potential cost savings or increased revenue:

  • Crop insurance subsidies: Congress could save up to $1.2 billion if it reduced or limited subsidies for individual farmers.
  • Medicaid supplemental payments: by identifying improper Medicaid payments, HHS could save up to hundreds of millions of dollars.
  • Tobacco taxes: the federal government lost as much as $615 million to $1 billion between 2009 and 2011 “because tobacco manufacturers and consumers substituted higher-taxed smoking tobacco products with similar lower tax products.

The entire list is in the full report, GAO-13-279SP - "2013 Annual Report: Actions Needed to Reduce Fragmentation, Overlap, and Duplication and Achieve Other Financial Benefits." The report runs 293 pages and is available here.

The GAO’s report includes recommendations for policy changes in each area. But the report includes some positive statistics about the impact of the GAO’s previous efforts.

Since its first report in 2011, the GAO found that the Obama administration’s executive branch agencies and Congress “have made progress.”

As of the latest report’s completion last month, the GAO found, a majority of the areas it identified in the first two reports in 2011 and 2012 got attention from the agencies involved: 16 of the 131 areas “were addressed”; 87 were “partially addressed”; and only 27 were “not addressed.” 

Of approximately 300 “actions needed” within these areas, more than half were addressed or partially addressed: 65 were addressed, 149 were partially addressed and 85 were not addressed.

The GAO’s recommendations to reduce waste and duplication on combat uniforms were originally provided to the Defense Department in September 2012. The department responded with a statement saying, “the DOD plans to provide joint criteria and policy guidance for camouflage uniforms to the military departments by March 2013, and plans to … provide additional oversight and further pursue active partnerships for joint development and use of uniforms.”

Logistics Spc. 2nd Class Darlene Kemble / U.S. Navy

U.S. Navy Seabees display Navy Working Uniform Type III in January 2012 in Pearl Harbor.

Contacted Tuesday by NBC News for a response, representatives of the Defense Department referred to the previous statement. 

At a hearing Tuesday afternoon before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, GAO staffers testified about the report's findings and answered committee members’ questions.

In his opening statement, U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the committee’s chair, expressed disappointment that only 16 of the 131 areas the GAO previously reported got fixed.

“As budget pressure increases and the American taxpayer says I cannot afford to pay for the same services twice,” he said, “both Congress, including the GAO, and executive branch must find these programs, must find this waste and must do our job differently.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the committee’s ranking Democrat, blamed Congress for failing to act and said he hoped that Republicans and Democrats could “join forces to reduce waste, fraud and abuse.”

“We should all be able to agree that a dollar wasted here is a dollar that is not put to better use elsewhere,” Cummings said.  “I think Republicans and Democrats will agree that we want to see taxpayers' dollars spent in an effective and efficient manner.”

U.S. Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, who runs the GAO and was the hearing's main witness, summed up his testimony with this observation:

“My term goes to 2025.  I hope that I won’t be reporting all these same issues in that year. But I can tell you that it won’t change unless the Congress gets involved in this process with active oversight.” 

Related story: Uncloaked: How Army is testing new camo to replace flawed design