Opening Remarks by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken Before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Washington, D.C.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member McCaul, thank you so much for your warm welcome.  It’s very, very good to be back before this committee, to be back in this room.  And I really do appreciate the opportunity to talk today about the foreign policy goals and priorities of the Biden-Harris administration and some of the early work that we’ve done to try to achieve them.

As I have said before, I am committed to working with Congress – on the takeoff, and not just the landing.  I hope the administration’s recommitment to working with you will usher in a new era of trust, cooperation, and understanding between the Executive and Legislative branches.  And I come to this because I work for a president who believes deeply in it; and having had the experience of working in that lesser body down the street on the Foreign Relations Committee, it’s something that I feel personally myself.

The Biden-Harris administration has set out foreign policy priorities by asking a simple question, and it’s one that motivates us every single day:  What will this policy mean for American workers and American families?

And with that in mind, we set out the following priorities.

Stopping COVID-19 and strengthening global health security, so a crisis like this never happens again.

Building a more stable and inclusive global economy that delivers security and opportunity for as many Americans as possible.

Renewing democracy at home and abroad, because strong democracies are more stable, more open, more committed to human rights, less prone to conflict, and a more dependable market for our goods and services.

Working to create a humane and effective immigration system, because strong borders are fundamental to our national security and welcoming immigrants is core to our national identity.

Revitalizing our ties with allies and partners, because these relationships really are force multipliers and a unique asset to the United States.

Tackling the climate crisis and driving a green energy revolution, because effectively dealing with climate change is essential to the health of our people, our economy, our security, and our planet.

Securing our leadership in technology, because it’s critical to thriving in the global economy – and because we need to strengthen our defenses against bad actors.

And managing our relationship with China, the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century.

With those priorities in mind, here are some of the actions we’ve taken in the first 50 days of this administration.

On COVID-19:  We re-engaged the World Health Organization and contributed an initial $2 billion to COVAX, the global vaccination initiative.

On climate:  We rejoined the Paris Agreement and announced a Climate Leaders Summit, which will be held on Earth Day, April 22nd.

On our allies and partners:  We held the first ministerial meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between us, Japan, Australia, and India, and we will hold a leader-level summit this week on Friday.  We halted any planned troop withdrawals from Germany pending a Global Posture Review led by the Pentagon.  And I took my first virtual trip as Secretary to Canada and to Mexico, and next week, Secretary Austin and I will travel to Japan and to South Korea.

On immigration:  We overturned the discriminatory Muslim and Africa travel bans.  We rescinded the zero tolerance Executive Order on migrant family separation.  And we sent the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 to the Hill to modernize our immigration system.

On refugees and asylum policies:  We rescinded harmful executive orders on refugee resettlement and announced a new refugee admissions target of 125,000 people for Fiscal Year 2022.  We suspended the Asylum Cooperative Agreements with the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.  We reinstated Deferred Enforced Departure to Liberians and granted temporary protected status to Venezuelans already in the United States.

On democracy and human rights:  We joined the UN Human Rights Council as an observer.  We put into effect the presidential proclamation that U.S. diplomacy protect the human rights of LGBTQI people worldwide.  We released the Khashoggi report and announced the Khashoggi Ban to stop people who engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities on behalf of a foreign government from entering our country.  We imposed Russia sanctions on Alexei Navalny’s poisoning and detention.  And we imposed sanctions in response to the military coup in Burma.

On public health:  We rescinded the Mexico City Policy, prioritizing sexual and reproductive health, including funding for the UN Population Fund.

On nonproliferation:  We extended the New START Treaty with Russia for five years and relaunched diplomacy with our closest European allies to bring Iran back into compliance with the JCPOA.

On conflict diplomacy:  We suspended the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia and named a special envoy to lead diplomatic efforts to end the war in Yemen.  We revoked designations of Houthis as a Foreign Terrorist Organization to enable urgent assistance to the world’s most challenged people when it comes to the humanitarian crisis they’re facing.  And we boosted diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan ahead of the May 1st deadline.

And on strengthening the State Department:  We’ve invested in diversity and inclusion to have a diplomatic workforce that reflects the diversity of our country.  We’re focused on accountability and transparency.  And we will modernize and rebuild, so our team around the world has the tools and the support they need to get the job done.

So, as you can see, many of these steps map directly onto our core priorities.  We can draw a line from each one of them and draw a line further to the security, prosperity, and well-being of our fellow citizens.

The President has made it clear that we will lead with diplomacy, because it’s the best way to deal with today’s challenges.

Above all, we are determined to hold ourselves accountable to a single, overarching measure of success:  Are we delivering results for the American people?

That’s our mission.  It’s our opportunity.  We’ll try to do our best to make the most of it.

Thank you very much.  I’m very glad to be here, and I look forward to getting your questions.

 

More from: Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

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    Two current tribal government officials and one former tribal government official of the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation (MHA Nation) were charged by criminal complaint unsealed today for their alleged acceptance of bribes and kickbacks from a contractor providing construction services on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation (FBIR), which is the home of the MHA Nation.
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    Six individuals were charged in an indictment with fraudulently obtaining approximately $1.5 million in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans on behalf of five businesses based in Georgia and South Carolina.
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    A Hawaii man has been taken into custody on allegations he fraudulently obtained more than $12.8 million in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration (SBA) under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, announced Acting Assistant Attorney General Brian C. Rabbitt of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and U.S. Attorney Kenji M. Price of the District of Hawaii.
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  • Federal Real Property: Additional Documentation of Decision Making Could Improve Transparency of New Disposal Process
    In U.S GAO News
    In 2016, the Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act (FASTA) created the independent Public Buildings Reform Board (the Board) to support a new, three-round process for disposing of unneeded federal real property. The first of these rounds required the Board to identify and recommend at least five high-value disposal candidates with a total market value between $500 and $750 million. To identify these properties, the General Services Administration (GSA) collected and evaluated agency recommendations; a GSA-hired contractor analyzed real property data; and the Board held public hearings, visited properties, and met with federal officials. This process resulted in identifying 44 properties. The Board then took various steps to evaluate the 44 properties and recommended 12 final disposal candidates that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) approved in January 2020. (See figure.) However, the Board did not fully document the process used to evaluate these candidates. For example, the Board's rationales for why individual candidates were or were not recommended were vague or incomplete. Full documentation on the decision-making process would better position stakeholders, including members of Congress, to understand the Board's rationales, especially for decisions with financial implications. Process Used by Stakeholders for Identifying and Recommending High-Value Federal Real Property for Potential Disposal Candidates According to Board and selected federal agency officials, FASTA made it easier for agencies to pursue high-value property disposals due, in part, to exemptions from some requirements, such as having to first offer properties to federal, state, or local agencies. However, FASTA's effect on other long-standing challenges, including funding to prepare properties for disposal, is unclear. For example, FASTA created a dedicated funding source to implement Board recommendations including those related to covering disposal costs, such as relocating agency staff. However, officials expressed concern that access to these funds is not automatic and must go through the annual appropriations process, which rarely coincides with the timing of these projects. The administration proposed legislative language to make proceeds from the sale of assets in fiscal year 2021 available without additional actions by Congress. However, as of January 2021, legislation containing the proposed language had not been enacted. This report discusses elements Congress may wish to evaluate when determining whether to grant such budget-related flexibility. GAO designated federal real property management, including the disposal of properties, as a high-risk area in 2003. FASTA included a provision for GAO to review the recommendations and selection processes such as those used in the first round of identifying and recommending high-value properties as candidates for disposal. This report examines: (1) how stakeholders implemented FASTA to identify and evaluate high-value properties as potential disposal candidates and (2) stakeholder views on the extent to which FASTA helped agencies with the disposal of unneeded high-value properties and addressed long-standing challenges in disposing of federal properties. GAO reviewed FASTA and analyzed documents from the Board, OMB, GSA, and selected 14 federal agencies to examine the processes they used and the challenges they encountered under the FASTA process. Agencies were selected based on their recommendations of high-value properties and inclusion on the Board's final list, among other things. GAO also interviewed officials from the Board, OMB, GSA, and selected federal agencies. GAO is recommending that the Board fully document its process for recommending FASTA disposal candidates, including the rationales behind disposal decisions. The Board noted plans to develop more documentation of its future disposal decisions. For more information, contact David Trimble at (202) 512-2834 or trimbled@gao.gov.
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  • Medicaid: HHS’s Preliminary Analyses Offer Incomplete Picture of Behavioral Health Demonstration’s Effectiveness
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found The Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014 (PAMA) established the Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics (CCBHC) demonstration and tasked the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) with its implementation. CCBHCs aim to improve the behavioral health services they provide, particularly for Medicaid beneficiaries. Initially established for a 2-year period, the demonstration has been extended by law a number of times; most recently, it was extended to September 2023. States participating in the demonstration can receive Medicaid payments, consistent with federal requirements, for CCBHC services provided to beneficiaries. PAMA also required HHS to assess the effect of the demonstration on service access, costs, and quality. HHS's preliminary assessments of the demonstration in eight states, with 66 participating CCBHCs, found the following: Access. CCBHCs commonly added services related to mental and behavioral health, such as medication-assisted treatment, and took actions to provide services outside the clinic setting, such as through telehealth. Costs. States' average payments to CCBHCs typically exceeded CCBHC costs for the first 2 years of the demonstration. CCBHC payments and costs were more closely aligned in the second year for most states, better reflecting the payment methods prescribed under the demonstration. Quality. States and CCBHCs took steps, such as implementing electronic health records systems, to report performance on 21 quality measures. GAO found data limitations complicated—and will continue to affect—HHS's efforts to assess the effectiveness of the demonstration. For example: Lack of baseline data. PAMA requires HHS to assess the quality of services provided by CCBHCs compared with non-participating areas or states. The demonstration marked the first time these clinics reported performance on quality measures, so no historical baseline data exist. HHS officials noted that with time, additional data may provide insight on the quality of services. Lack of comparison groups. PAMA requires HHS to compare CCBHCs' efforts to increase access and improve quality with non-participating clinics and states. HHS was unable to identify comparable clinics or states due to significant differences among the communities. Lack of detail on Medicaid encounters. PAMA requires HHS to assess the effect of the demonstration on federal and state costs and on Medicaid beneficiaries' access to services. HHS plans to use Medicaid claims and encounter data to assess such changes. However, GAO has previously identified concerns with the accuracy and completeness of Medicaid data and has made numerous recommendations aimed at improving their quality. HHS's decisions in implementing the demonstration also complicated its assessment efforts. HHS allowed states to identify different program goals and target populations, and to cover different services. HHS also did not require states to use standard billing codes and billing code modifiers it developed. The lack of standardization across states limited HHS's ability to assess changes in a uniform way. Why GAO Did This Study Behavioral health conditions—mental health issues and substance use disorders—affect millions of people. HHS estimates that 61 million adults had at least one behavioral health condition in 2019—41 million of whom did not receive any related treatment in the prior year. Many individuals with behavioral health conditions rely on community mental health centers for treatment, but the scope and quality of these services vary. To improve community-based behavioral health services, PAMA created the CCBHC demonstration and provided HHS with $25 million to support its implementation. PAMA directed HHS to assess the demonstration and to provide recommendations for its continuation, modification, or termination. To date, HHS has issued three annual reports assessing the initial demonstration period, which ran from 2017 to 2019. HHS plans to issue a fourth annual report and a final report by December 2021. This report describes HHS's assessment of the demonstration regarding access, costs, and quality. Under the CARES Act, GAO is to issue another report on states' experiences by September 2021. GAO reviewed federal laws and regulations; HHS guidance; and HHS's assessments of the demonstration, including three issued reports, interim reports, and the analysis plan for future reports. GAO also interviewed HHS officials and officials from organizations familiar with community health clinics. HHS provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Carolyn L. Yocom (202) 512-7114 or yocomc@gao.gov.
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  • Transportation Research: Additional Actions Could Improve DOT’s Internal Collaboration and Reliability of Information on Research Activities
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Transportation (DOT) uses a multistep, centralized process to prioritize and select research activities it will fund. DOT's modal administrations—which focus on specific modes of transportation like air, rail, and highways—conduct and manage most of DOT's research. The modal administrations GAO spoke to used a variety of methods to prioritize and select research, including soliciting stakeholders' feedback on research needs. The Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology (OST-R) is responsible for reviewing this proposed research to ensure alignment with DOT's strategic plans and to prevent duplicative research efforts, as required by statute. DOT has multiple efforts to facilitate research collaboration both externally and internally, but in guidance to promote collaboration, OST-R did not incorporate all leading practices. Specifically, OST-R established topical-research working groups on 12 multimodal subject areas in October 2018 and issued accompanying guidance. This guidance incorporated some leading collaboration practices, such as directing working groups to identify leadership roles and relevant participants. However, the guidance did not incorporate two leading practices—defining and monitoring progress toward long-term outcomes and regularly updating and monitoring written agreements. Taking steps to ensure the working groups follow these practices could provide OST-R greater assurance that the groups coordinate their efforts effectively, better plan long-term research, and better position themselves to address future transportation challenges. OST-R has taken some steps to help ensure that its public database on DOT-funded research projects (the Research Hub) contains complete and accurate information, as required by DOT's data management policy; however, data reliability issues remained. For example, as of July 2019—the latest available data at the time of GAO's analysis—36 percent of records in the database were missing research partners' contact information, hindering the research community's ability to obtain current project details. Taking additional steps, such as providing instructions to the modal administrations on how to improve the completeness and accuracy of the information they give OST-R for the Research Hub, would help ensure the database is fulfilling DOT's intended purpose that it serve as a reliable source of information on the department's research portfolio. Examples of Research Activities on Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems and Connected Vehicles Funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation DOT's research activities are critical to DOT's mission to make the nation's transportation system safer and more efficient. To meet current research needs and prepare for emerging technologies, DOT partners with public and private entities. In fiscal year 2018, DOT funded about 2,300 partners and had a research budget exceeding $1 billion. GAO was asked to review DOT's research activities. This report addresses: (1) how DOT prioritizes and selects which research activities it will undertake; (2) the extent to which DOT facilitates research collaboration with external stakeholders and across the department; and (3) the extent to which DOT ensures its Research Hub database contains complete and accurate project information. GAO reviewed documents and analyzed data from DOT; observed DOT-funded research; interviewed DOT officials from OST-R and four selected modal administrations; and used GAO's leading collaboration practices to assess the extent of collaboration. GAO also interviewed 17 DOT research partners, including universities and associations. GAO recommends that OST-R (1) take steps to ensure the topical-research working groups follow all leading collaboration practices, and (2) take additional steps to ensure the information in the Research Hub is complete and accurate. DOT concurred with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Elizabeth Repko at (202) 512-2834 or repkoe@gao.gov.
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  • Chemical Assessments: Annual EPA Survey Inconsistent with Leading Practices in Program Management
    In U.S GAO News
    The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) Program has not produced timely chemical assessments, and most of its 15 ongoing assessments have experienced delays. As we reported in March 2019, the IRIS Program has taken some actions to make the assessment process more transparent, such as increasing communication with EPA offices and releasing supporting documentation for review earlier in the draft development process, but the need for greater transparency in some steps of the assessment process remains. Specifically, the IRIS Program does not publicly announce when assessment drafts move to certain steps in their development process or announce reasons for delays in producing specific assessments. Without such information, stakeholders who may be able to help fill data and analytical gaps are unable to contribute. This could leave EPA without potential support that could help overcome delays. Delays of Milestones by Quarter for a Selection of the Integrated Risk information System's Assessments in Development 2019 - 2024 In mid-2018, EPA's Office of Research and Development (ORD) instituted changes to the way it solicits nominations for chemical assessments prepared by the IRIS Program but did so without providing sufficient guidance or criteria, raising questions about its ability to meet EPA user needs. For example, ORD issued a new survey to EPA program and regional offices but did not provide them with guidance for selecting chemicals for nomination, and ORD did not make explicit the criteria it was using for selecting nominations to include in the IRIS Program's list of assessments in development. Furthermore, despite a significant decline in survey participation between 2018 and 2019, EPA did not indicate whether the agency has assessed the quality of information generated by the survey. Leading program management practices state that agency management should internally communicate the necessary, quality information to achieve the entity's objectives and should monitor and evaluate program activities. Without evaluating the quality of the information produced by the survey, ORD cannot know if the survey is achieving its intended purpose and whether ORD has the information necessary to meet user needs. EPA's IRIS Program prepares chemical toxicity assessments that contain EPA's scientific position on the potential human health effects of exposure to chemicals; at present, the IRIS database contains more than 570 chemical assessments. In March 2019, GAO reported on the IRIS Program's changes to increase transparency about its processes and methodologies, including the use of systematic review. However, GAO also found that EPA decreased the number of ongoing assessments in December 2018 from 22 to 13 and continued to face challenges in producing timely assessments. This report evaluates (1) EPA's progress in completing IRIS chemical assessments since 2018; and (2) EPA's recent actions to manage the IRIS Program, and the extent to which these actions help the Program meet EPA user needs. GAO reviewed and analyzed EPA documents and interviewed officials from EPA; GAO also selected three standards for program management, found commonalities among them, and compared ORD's management of the IRIS Program against these leading practices. GAO is making five recommendations, including that EPA provide more information publicly about where chemical assessments are in the development process; and issue guidance for selecting chemicals for nomination and criteria for selecting nominations for assessment. EPA partially agreed with two of our recommendations and disagreed with the other three. For more information, contact J. Alfredo Gómez at (202) 512-3841 or gomezj@gao.gov.
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  • The Nation’s Fiscal Health: Effective Use of Fiscal Rules and Targets
    In U.S GAO News
    In fiscal year 2019, debt held by the public reached 79 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). The government's fiscal response to COVID-19 combined with the severe economic contraction from the pandemic will substantially increase federal debt. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that debt held by the public will reach 98 percent of GDP by the end of fiscal year 2020. The nation's fiscal challenges will require attention once the economy has substantially recovered and public health goals have been attained. GAO has previously reported that a long-term plan is needed to put the government on a sustainable fiscal path. Other countries have used well-designed fiscal rules and targets—which constrain fiscal policy by controlling factors like expenditures or revenue—to contain excessive deficits. For example, Germany's constitution places limits on its deficits. The U.S. federal government has previously enacted fiscal rules, such as those in the Budget Control Act of 2011. However, current fiscal rules have not effectively addressed the misalignment between spending and revenues over time. GAO identified key considerations to help Congress if it were to adopt new fiscal rules and targets, as part of a long-term plan for fiscal sustainability (see table). Key Considerations for Designing, Implementing, and Enforcing Fiscal Rules and Targets Setting clear goals and objectives can anchor a country's fiscal policy. Fiscal rules and targets can help ensure that spending and revenue decisions align with agreed-upon goals and objectives. The weight given to tradeoffs among simplicity, flexibility, and enforceability depends on the goals a country is trying to achieve with a fiscal rule. In addition, there are tradeoffs between the types and combinations of rules, and the time frames over which the rules apply. The degree to which fiscal rules and targets are binding, such as being supported through a country's constitution or nonbinding political agreements, can impact their permanence, as well as the extent to which ongoing political commitment is needed to uphold them. Integrating fiscal rules and targets into budget discussions can contribute to their ongoing use and provide for a built-in enforcement mechanism. The budget process can include reviews of fiscal rules and targets. Fiscal rules and targets with limited, well-defined exemptions, clear escape clauses for events such as national emergencies, and adjustments for the economic cycle can help a country address future crises. Institutions supporting fiscal rules and targets need clear roles and responsibilities for supporting their implementation and measuring their effectiveness. Independently analyzed data and assessments can help institutions monitor compliance with fiscal rules and targets. Having clear, transparent fiscal rules and targets that a government communicates to the public and that the public understands can contribute to a culture of fiscal transparency and promote fiscal sustainability for the country. Source: GAO analysis of literature review and interviews. | GAO-20-561 Our nation faces serious challenges at a time when the federal government is highly leveraged in debt by historical norms. The imbalance between revenue and spending built into current law and policy have placed the nation on an unsustainable long-term fiscal path. Fiscal rules and targets can be used to help frame and control the overall results of spending and revenue decisions that affect the debt. GAO was asked to review fiscal rules and targets. This report (1) assesses the extent to which the federal government has taken action to contribute to long-term fiscal sustainability through fiscal rules and targets, and (2) identifies key considerations for designing, implementing, and enforcing fiscal rules and targets in the U.S. GAO compared current and former U.S. fiscal rules to literature on the effective use of rules and targets; reviewed CBO reports and relevant laws; and interviewed experts. GAO conducted case studies of national fiscal rules in Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands. Congress should consider establishing a long-term fiscal plan that includes fiscal rules and targets, such as a debt-to-GDP target, and weigh GAO's key considerations to ensure proper design, implementation, and enforcement of these rules and targets. The Department of the Treasury and other entities provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate. For more information, contact Jeff Arkin, at (202) 512-6806 or arkinj@gao.gov.
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  • Private Water Utilities: Actions Needed to Enhance Ownership Data
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found Available information on private for-profit drinking water utilities shows that 14 publicly traded companies served customers in 33 states in 2019. However, the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) primary source of publicly available information on U.S. drinking water utilities—the Safe Drinking Water Information System (SDWIS)—contains ownership information that is limited by inaccuracies. EPA collects information in SDWIS from states but does not include definitions for utility ownership types in its data entry guidance. In addition, EPA takes actions to verify some of the data, but does not verify or correct ownership data. EPA and others use SDWIS for purposes such as analyzing Safe Drinking Water Act violations by type of utility ownership. Such analysis can help EPA and states build utility capacity to provide safe drinking water. By defining ownership types, and verifying and correcting the data in SDWIS, EPA could help ensure the data are accurate and reliable for users of the data and the public. EPA provided over $500 million in Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) assistance to for-profit utilities for 226 projects to help ensure delivery of safe drinking water from January 2010 through June 2020. EPA's Drinking Water SRF program, created under the Safe Drinking Water Act, provides grants to states for low- or no-interest loans or grants to drinking water utilities for infrastructure projects. The amount provided to for-profit water utilities is small, about 2 percent of the $26.5 billion provided overall from January 2010 through June 2020. States That Provided Private For-Profit Utilities with Assistance from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, since January 2010 Why GAO Did This Study The roughly 50,000 drinking water utilities in the United States face steep costs—more than $470 billion over the next 20 years, according to EPA estimates—to repair and replace drinking water infrastructure. These costs are passed on to customers through water rates. States regulate the rates charged by privately owned water utilities. EPA has responsibilities to implement programs to further the health protection objectives of the Safe Drinking Water Act. GAO was asked to review private for-profit drinking water utilities and rates. This report examines, among other things, (1) information available from EPA and other sources about the number and characteristics of private for-profit water utilities in the United States, and (2) Drinking Water SRF assistance provided to private for-profit water utilities. GAO reviewed EPA SDWIS data, Drinking Water SRF data, and Global Water Intelligence data, as well as EPA's and others' documents. GAO also interviewed EPA and water utility stakeholders.
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