New GAO report evaluates climate change and cybersecurity policies at the federal level

Climate change, cyberinfrastructure, and personal security clearances dominated Wednesday’s House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing.

The Government Accountability Office on Wednesday released a biennial report assessing the waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement of government operations. The 2019 report identified 35 areas inside the government that required reevaluation, more than half of which are unchanged since the 2017 report.

Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., zeroed in on the $13.6 million in taxpayer money that President Trump has spent traveling to and from his vacation home in Mar-a-Lago.

Ranking member Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said Trump’s behavior is not uncommon or unlike that of prior administrations.

“The perception is that this is the only time it’s happened that’s someone traveled to their home or vacation spot,” Jordan said. “But previous presidents have done this time and time again.”

Cummings also criticized the administration for the unusually contentious relationship between White House staffers and the GAO.

Democratic lawmakers focused most of their attention on a section of the report addressing personnel security clearances, in light of recent media reports about Trump taking the unusual step of demanding that his daughter and son-in-law receive clearances despite objections.

Specifically, the report found that “the percentage of executive branch agencies meeting established timeliness objectives for initial secret clearances, initial top secret clearances, and periodic reinvestigations decreased each year from fiscal years 2012 through 2018.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., pressed GAO Director Gene Dodaro on how the president’s actions might endanger national security.

“Obviously, the White House is supposed to set an example for the rest of the government to follow and your report outlines ways in which the administration is already failing to ensure there is background quality,” she said.

Dodaro told lawmakers that background investigations are crucial to ensuring that the wrong information does not fall into the wrong hands.

“This is very important that only the right people in the government have access to the highest, most sensitive information,” Dodaro said.

Other than the White House, some of the most striking issues in the report were related to climate change and cybersecurity infrastructure.

Climate change was cited as a risk to U.S. economic and environmental systems such as disaster relief efforts. The report stated that recent hurricanes, forest fires, flooding and other natural disasters have increased total federal funding for disaster assistance since 2005 to almost $430 trillion.

Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Calif., asked Dodaro how climate change affects national security.

Dodaro said his group does rely on climate change assessments and “numerous studies” that have found that climate change “is producing an economic and environmental risk to the government.”

He said recent hurricanes such as Florence and Michael have cost billions of dollars in damage to military facilities.

“It is affecting DOD’s own operations both domestically and internationally,” Dodaro said. “A lot of their facilities are in coastal areas and with rising sea levels it poses difficulties.”

The report also cited inadequate federal strategy for cybersecurity as a high risk for national security.

When referring to challenges with cybersecurity, Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., asked, “What’s the holdup, what’s the issue?”

Dodaro responded that cybersecurity infrastructure is not being addressed by the federal government with a sense of urgency.

“I put cybersecurity on the government-wide high-risk list in 1997,” Dodaro said. “I’ve been on this quest for a long time.”

Other government operations such as the 2020 Census and the opioid crisis were also sighted as high risks in the report.

The GAO added the 2020 Census to the high-risk list in 2017 for escalating costs and inefficient IT systems. The Census Bureau spent $12.3 billion in 2010 and is projected to spend about $15.6 billion in 2020.

In response to the GAO’s suggestions, the Census Bureau has created an action plan to update their software systems to improve management of personal information.

The GAO also noted the agency’s close attention to the opioid crisis. The report detailed that drug overdoses are the leading cause of death in the nation and had an economic cost of more than $500 billion in 2015, according to the Council of Economic Advisors.

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