Priority Open Recommendations: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

What GAO Found

In April 2020, GAO identified 12 priority recommendations for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Since then, NASA has implemented one of those recommendations when it calculated the Space Launch System program’s developmental cost growth using a baseline adjusted to reflect the scope of work planned for its first mission.

GAO also closed two recommendations as not implemented. Since GAO’s June 2019 recommendation to update the Orion crew vehicle’s cost estimate to reflect the April 2023 baseline launch date for the first mission to carry crew, that mission’s launch date has been delayed. There is no longer an opportunity for NASA to take action on this recommendation now that the program no longer expects to launch in April 2023.

The second recommendation, closed as not implemented, was for NASA to develop and maintain a contingency plan for ensuring a presence on the International Space Station until a Commercial Crew Program contractor was certified. NASA took actions to maintain a U.S. presence on the space station and provided GAO periodic updates on considerations for maintaining a continued presence, but did not develop and maintain a contingency plan. NASA certified a Commercial Crew program contractor in November 2020. As a result, there is no longer an opportunity for NASA to take action on this recommendation.

In May 2021, GAO identified two additional priority recommendations for NASA, bringing the total number to 11. These recommendations involve the following areas:

  • monitoring program costs and execution, and
  • ensuring cybersecurity.

NASA’s continued attention to these issues could lead to significant improvements in government operations.

Why GAO Did This Study

Priority open recommendations are the GAO recommendations that warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies because their implementation could save large amounts of money; improve congressional and/or executive branch decision-making on major issues; eliminate mismanagement, fraud, and abuse; or ensure that programs comply with laws and funds are legally spent, among other benefits. Since 2015 GAO has sent letters to selected agencies to highlight the importance of implementing such recommendations.

For more information, contact Michele Mackin at (202) 512-4841 or mackinm@gao.gov.

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  • Financial Stability: Agencies Have Not Found Leveraged Lending to Significantly Threaten Stability but Remain Cautious Amid Pandemic
    In U.S GAO News
    In the years before the economic shock from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC) and others assessed the potential risks to financial stability that leveraged loans and collateralized loan obligation (CLO) securities may pose. Generally, leveraged loans are those made to businesses with poor credit and high debt, and CLO securities are backed by these loans. FSOC and others found that riskier borrower profiles and looser underwriting standards left leveraged lending market participants vulnerable to losses in the event of a downturn. After the COVID-19 shock in March 2020, loans suffered record downgrades and increased defaults, but the highest-rated CLO securities remained resilient. Although regulators monitoring the effects of the pandemic remain cautious, as of September 2020, they had not found that leveraged lending presented significant threats to financial stability. Based on regulators' assessments, leveraged lending activities had not contributed significantly to the distress of any large financial entity whose failure could threaten financial stability. Large banks' strong capital positions have allowed them to manage their leveraged lending exposures, and the exposure of insurers and other investors also appeared manageable. Mutual funds experienced redemptions by investors but were able to meet them in part by selling leveraged loan holdings. While this may have put downward pressure on already-distressed loan prices, based on regulators' assessments, distressed leveraged loan prices did not pose a potential threat to financial stability. Present-day CLO securities appear to pose less of a risk to financial stability than did similar securities during the 2007–2009 financial crisis, according to regulators and market participants. For example, CLO securities have better investor protections, are more insulated from market swings, and are not widely tied to other risky, complex instruments. FSOC monitors leveraged-lending-related risks primarily through its monthly Systemic Risk Committee meetings, but opportunities exist to enhance FSOC's abilities to respond to financial stability threats. FSOC identified leveraged lending activities as a source of potential risk to financial stability before the COVID-19 shock and recommended continued monitoring and analysis. However, FSOC does not conduct tabletop or similar scenario-based exercises where participants discuss roles and responses to hypothetical emergency scenarios. As a result, FSOC is missing an opportunity to enhance preparedness and test members' coordinated response to financial stability risks. Further, as GAO reported in 2016, FSOC does not generally have clear authority to address broader risks that are not specific to a particular financial entity, such as risks from leveraged lending. GAO recommended that Congress consider better aligning FSOC's authorities with its mission to respond to systemic risks, but Congress had not done so as of September 2020. GAO maintains that changes such as broader designation authority would help FSOC respond to risks from activities that involve many regulators, such as leveraged lending. The market for institutional leveraged loans grew from an estimated $0.5 trillion in 2010 to $1.2 trillion in 2019, fueled largely by investor demand for CLO securities. Some observers and regulators have drawn comparisons to the pre-2008 subprime mortgage market, noting that loan origination and securitization may similarly spread risks to the financial system. These fears are being tested by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has significantly affected leveraged businesses. This report examines assessments by regulators, FSOC, and others—both before and after the COVID-19 shock to the economy—of the potential risks to financial stability stemming from leveraged lending activities, and the extent to which FSOC monitors and responds to risks from broad-based activities like leveraged lending, among other objectives. GAO examined agency and private data on market size and investor exposures; reviewed agency, industry, and international reports; and interviewed federal financial regulators and industry participants. GAO recommends that the Secretary of the Treasury, as Chairperson of FSOC, conduct scenario-based exercises intended to evaluate capabilities for responding to crises. GAO also reiterates its 2016 recommendation (GAO-16-175) that Congress consider legislative changes to align FSOC's authorities with its mission. FSOC neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation, but said that it would take further actions if it determined necessary. For more information, contact Michael E. Clements at (202) 512-8678 or ClementsM@gao.gov.
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    In Crime News
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  • VA Research: Opportunities Exist to Strengthen Partnerships and Guide Decision-Making with Nonprofits and Academic Affiliates
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) extramural research spending totaled about $510 million in fiscal year 2019—nearly half of the $1.1 billion in total spending on VA research. Of the $510 million, federal sources, such as National Institutes of Health, funded $382 million (75 percent), and nonfederal sources, including private entities, academic institutions, state and local governments, and foundations, funded $128 million (25 percent). Spending at the 92 VA medical centers that conducted extramural research in fiscal year 2019 ranged from less than $2 million to more than $10 million (see figure). VA medical centers' nonprofit research and education corporations (NPC) and academic affiliate partners administered the grants that accounted for 91 percent of the spending. Figure: Extramural Research Spending by VA Medical Centers that Conducted Extramural Research in Fiscal Year 2019 VA has made efforts to promote and support VA medical centers' partnerships with academic affiliates—for example, by coordinating a mentoring program for local VA research officials—and considers effective affiliations as an enhancement to research. However, VA's Central Office officials have not provided examples of successful practices for strengthening research partnerships with academic affiliates. Having such practices would promote collaborative opportunities for VA medical centers with academic affiliates, particularly for medical centers that have poor communication with affiliates. Additionally, VA's Central Office has provided general guidance but not specific tools to VA medical centers for determining when an NPC or an academic affiliate should administer a project's extramural funds. Having specific decision-making tools could help medical centers make more informed decisions to provide optimal support for the research. VA research, which has contributed to many medical advances, may be funded by VA's appropriation or extramurally by other federal agencies and nonfederal sources. To access extramural funding, investigators at VA medical centers usually work with an NPC or academic affiliate partner to submit a grant proposal. Once a grant is awarded, medical centers' partners administer the grant by distributing funding, fulfilling reporting requirements, and performing other administrative activities. GAO was asked to review VA's extramural research. This report examines, among other objectives, (1) how much VA spent on extramural research in fiscal year 2019 and (2) the efforts VA has made to support medical centers' partnerships for extramural research. GAO analyzed VA policies, documents, and data. It also conducted site visits and interviewed officials from VA's Central Office and from a nongeneralizable sample of VA medical centers, NPCs, and academic affiliates, which GAO selected to represent variation in geographic location and funding. GAO recommends that VA (1) provide more information to VA medical centers on strengthening research relationships with academic affiliates and (2) develop decision tools to help VA medical centers determine whether NPCs or academic affiliates should administer extramural grants. VA agreed with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact John Neumann at (202) 512-6888 or neumannj@gao.gov.
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    In Crime News
    San Diego Christian College (SDCC), based in Santee, California, will pay $225,000 to resolve allegations under the False Claims Act for submitting false claims to the U.S. Department of Education in violation of the federal ban on incentive-based compensation, the Justice Department announced today.
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    Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Justice announced a settlement with the Churchill Downs Louisiana Horseracing Company LLC, d/b/a Fair Grounds Corporation (Fair Grounds) that will resolve years of Clean Water Act (CWA) violations at its New Orleans racetrack. Under the settlement, Fair Grounds will eliminate unauthorized discharges of manure, urine and process wastewater through operational changes and construction projects at an estimated cost of $5,600,000. The company also will pay a civil penalty of $2,790,000, the largest ever paid by a concentrated animal feeding operation in a CWA matter.
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  • Chemical Security: Overlapping Programs Could Better Collaborate to Share Information and Identify Potential Security Gaps
    In U.S GAO News
    Eight federal programs addressing chemical safety or security from four departments or agencies that GAO reviewed contain requirements or guidance that generally align with at least half of the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) 18 Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards (CFATS) program standards. At least 550 of 3,300 (16 percent) facilities subject to the CFATS program are also subject to other federal programs. Analyses of CFATS and these eight programs indicate that some overlap, duplication, and fragmentation exists, depending on the program or programs to which a facility is subject. For example, six federal programs' requirements or guidance indicate some duplication with CFATS. CFATS program officials acknowledge similarities among these programs' requirements or guidance, some of which are duplicative, and said that the CFATS program allows facilities to meet CFATS program standards by providing information they prepared for other programs. more than 1,600 public water systems or wastewater treatment facilities are excluded under the CFATS statute, leading to fragmentation. While such facilities are subject to other programs, those programs collectively do not contain requirements or guidance that align with four CFATS standards. According to DHS, public water systems and wastewater treatment facilities are frequently subject to safety regulations that may have some security value, but in most cases, these facilities are not required to implement security measures commensurate to their level of security risk, which may lead to potential security gaps. The departments and agencies responsible for all nine of these chemical safety and security programs—four of which are managed by DHS, three by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and one each managed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the Department of Transportation (DOT)—have previously worked together to enhance information collection and sharing in response to Executive Order 13650, issued in 2013. This Executive Order directed these programs to take actions related to improving federal agency coordination and information sharing. However, these programs have not identified which facilities are subject to multiple programs, such that facilities may be unnecessarily developing duplicative information to comply with multiple programs. Although CFATS allows facilities to use information they prepared for other programs, CFATS program guidance does not specify what information facilities can reuse. Finally, DHS and EPA leaders acknowledged that there are differences between CFATS requirements and the security requirements for public water systems and wastewater treatment facilities, but they have not assessed the extent to which potential security gaps may exist. By leveraging collaboration established through the existing Executive Order working group, the CFATS program and chemical safety and security partners would be better positioned to minimize unnecessary duplication between CFATS and other programs and better ensure the security of facilities currently subject to fragmented requirements. Facilities with hazardous chemicals could be targeted by terrorists to inflict mass casualties or damage. Federal regulations applicable to chemical safety and security have evolved over time as authorizing statutes and regulations established programs for different purposes, such as safety versus security, and with different enforcement authorities. GAO has reported that such programs may be able to achieve greater efficiency where overlap exists by reducing duplication and better managing fragmentation. GAO was asked to review issues related to the effects that overlap, duplication, and fragmentation among the multiple federal programs may have on the security of the chemical sector. This report addresses the extent to which (1) such issues may exist between CFATS and other federal programs, and (2) the CFATS program collaborates with other federal programs. GAO analyzed the most recent available data on facilities subject to nine programs from DHS, EPA, ATF, and DOT; reviewed and analyzed statutes, regulations, and program guidance; and interviewed agency officials. GAO is making seven recommendations, including that DHS, EPA, ATF, and DOT identify facilities subject to multiple programs; DHS clarify guidance; and DHS and EPA assess security gaps. Agencies generally agreed with six; EPA did not agree with the recommendation on gaps. GAO continues to believe it is valid, as discussed in the report. For more information, contact Nathan Anderson at (206) 287-4804 or AndersonN@gao.gov.
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  • Electricity Grid Resilience: Climate Change Is Expected to Have Far-reaching Effects and DOE and FERC Should Take Actions
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Climate change is expected to have far-reaching effects on the electricity grid that could cost billions and could affect every aspect of the grid from generation, transmission, and distribution to demand for electricity, according to several reports GAO reviewed. The type and extent of these effects on the grid will vary by geographic location and other factors. For example, reports GAO reviewed stated that more frequent droughts and changing rainfall patterns may adversely affect hydroelectricity generation in Alaska and the Northwest and Southwest regions of the United States. Further, transmission capacity may be reduced or distribution lines damaged during increasing wildfire activity in some regions due to warmer temperatures and drier conditions. Moreover, climate change effects on the grid could cost utilities and customers billions, including the costs of power outages and infrastructure damage. Examples of Climate Change Effects on the Electricity Grid Since 2014, the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) have taken actions to enhance the resilience of the grid. For example, in 2015, DOE established a partnership with 18 utilities to plan for climate change. In 2018, FERC collected information from grid operators on grid resilience and their risks to hazards such as extreme weather. Nevertheless, opportunities exist for DOE and FERC to take additional actions to enhance grid resilience to climate change. For example, DOE identified climate change as a risk to energy infrastructure, including the grid, but it does not have an overall strategy to guide its efforts. GAO's Disaster Resilience Framework states that federal efforts can focus on risk reduction by creating resilience goals and linking those goals to an overarching strategy. Developing and implementing a department-wide strategy that defines goals and measures progress could help prioritize DOE's climate resilience efforts to ensure that resources are targeted effectively. Regarding FERC, it has not taken steps to identify or assess climate change risks to the grid and, therefore, is not well positioned to determine the actions needed to enhance resilience. Risk management involves identifying and assessing risks to understand the likelihood of impacts and their associated consequences. By doing so, FERC could then plan and implement appropriate actions to respond to the risks and achieve its objective of promoting resilience. Why GAO Did This Study According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, changes in the earth's climate are under way and expected to increase, posing risks to the electricity grid that may affect the nation's economic and national security. Annual costs of weather-related power outages total billions of dollars and may increase with climate change, although resilience investments could help address potential effects, according to the research program. Private companies own most of the electricity grid, but the federal government plays a significant role in promoting grid resilience—the ability to adapt to changing conditions; withstand potentially disruptive events; and, if disrupted, to rapidly recover. DOE, the lead agency for grid resilience efforts, conducts research and provides information and technical assistance to industry. FERC reviews mandatory grid reliability standards. This testimony summarizes GAO's report on grid resilience to climate change. Specifically, the testimony discusses (1) potential climate change effects on the electricity grid; and (2) actions DOE and FERC have taken since 2014 to enhance electricity grid resilience to climate change effects, and additional actions these agencies could take. GAO reviewed reports and interviewed agency officials and 55 relevant stakeholders.
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