Seeking Budgetary Prudence

During one of the many Republican Presidential Primary debates of 2011, Texas Governor Rick Perry fumbled when he failed to name the third federal agency that he would eliminate if he were to become president.  In an interview following that now-famous debate, Governor Perry explained: “From time to time you may forget about an agency that you are gonna zero out.”

The explanation, aimed at deflecting criticism with humor, actually is indicative of the problem so many rank-and-file Republicans have with their party leaders, elected lawmakers and presidential aspirants.

It’s not just a matter of remembering which agencies and programs they would zero out. They frequently don’t have any specific, defined ideas to remember.

When asked to show how they will reduce the rising federal debt of more than $17 trillion, an unconscionable obligation of nearly $59,000 per citizen, many elected officials and candidates for office alike mumble and fumble as they respond with broad generalities.

Enough is enough. As concerned citizens we must not forget our responsibility to hold Congress accountable as trustees for our hard earned taxpayer dollars.  What can we do?  We are fortunate that President Reagan provided us with a template for civic engagement.

In 1982, President Reagan committed his administration to well-managed government spending that would be accountable to taxpayers.  He directed J. Peter Grace to lead a commission to “root out government inefficiency and waste of tax dollars.”

More than 160 top private sector executives, together with more than 2000 volunteers, produced a report in 1984, thirty years ago, that recommended 2478 separate ways to save $424.4 billion over three years without eliminating essential services.

At that time, $424.4 billion in three-year savings presented a significant cut to the federal budget.  In today’s dollars it would translate into more than $1 trillion in savings. 

Congress chose to ignore the advice.  Facing a hostile Congress, President Reagan was unable to enact fiscal reforms on his own.  To his credit he understood that changes to the budgetary status quo would require citizen input and participation to challenge the lobbyists, the special interest groups and the complacent government bureaucrats. 

So he encouraged the cooperation of his OMB director, Jim Miller, together with Citizens For America (an organization I joined) to give out “Pork Barrel” awards to members of Congress who were considered profligate spenders.  At least there was a measure of public shame for promoting irresponsible spending.

What does this mean for us today?  Can similar citizen activism make a difference?

The non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) shows us where to start.  It issues an annual report identifying spending programs that are weak, fragmented, duplicative and otherwise ready to be zeroed out.

The 2011 report, for example, found 82 federally-funded programs, many with similar descriptions of purpose and goals for improving the quality of teachers that were spread across 10 agencies.  Ask a teacher you know how many, if any, of these programs they can name.  This simple exercise will let you know the relative impact of these 82 taxpayer-funded programs.

The 2013 report exposes additional new areas that were not previously disclosed.  Consider that, “when the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service begins the catfish program as mandated in the Food Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, the program will duplicate the work already being conducted by the FDA and by the National Marine Fisheries Service.”

Why the need for additional duplication?  Why are catfish such a national priority?

If lawmakers are serious about being fiscally responsible then they should work to repeal the provisions of the 2008 Act that assigned the examination and inspection of catfish to the USDA.  Each implemented reform can add up to millions and billions in savings.

Even National Public Radio is taking notice of government waste. On March 12th, Laura Sullivan reported on "All Things Considered" that due to the federal government’s own rules and procedures, it sits on millions of square feet of vacant office space and other property, paying roughly $1.7 billion a year just for maintenance. The government doesn’t even have an accurate list of what it owns or the condition of the buildings. In the meantime federal agencies and grantees lease available space from others.  So for the taxpayers, this unused property that we collectively own brings in no revenue and costs us billions.  It is time to raise the banner, “Occupy or Sell.” 

2014 is an important election cycle for both parties -- the Senate, a source of significant wasteful spending, is up for grabs. 

Candidates for office must know that the billions of dollars that are wasted each year by fragmentation, overlap,  and duplication matters to us. We must not remain a silent, non-participatory majority of citizens.  We need to challenge candidates to provide us with specific examples how they will be responsible stewards for our hard-earned taxpayer dollars. 

We, as responsible citizens, must fulfill our responsibility to vote.  And when we vote this November, let us remember President Reagan’s call to action at the initiation of the Grace Commission, “Don’t leave any stone unturned in your search to root out inefficiency.”  We owe it to ourselves and future generations.