The Do-Something Disease Is Going to Kill Us All

| March 29 2013
John Walker

Runaway Federal Spending: Problems in Search of Programs

As taxpayers grow numb with the constant drumbeat of bad economic news and looming federal bankruptcy, occasionally a fact jumps out that still has the power to command attention.

“It’s estimated that the government will have spent as much in the first four years of the new decade as it did in all of the 1990s.”

That is one sentence from a story by Doug McKelway on Fox News. It drove home the alarming pace of federal and sought to explain the cause.

“Adjusted for inflation,” McKelway wrote, “federal spending has gone up an average of $882 billion every year in the 1980s to
$1.48 trillion a year in the ‘90s to $2.44 trillion a year in the first decade of the 21st century.”

He says a major reason for this spending escalation is the failure of the federal government to cut programs while it spent to combat two major crises – – the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the deep recession that followed the financial collapse in 2008.

But his story delves deeper into the problem by citing a salient remark from Thomas Schatz, President of Citizens Against Government Waste.

“The Congressional system is to spend money and not save money,” Schatz said. “The incentive for many members of Congress to solve a problem is to create a program.”

It is worse than Schatz suggests. Far too many elected officials go to Washington believing they have a mandate to address every conceivable problem that nags their constituents. Then, in a knee-jerk political reaction, they concoct programs to solve the problems and begin the search for taxpayer dollars to fund them.

In wide-ranging testimony last month before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Schatz said that despite their best intentions, both presidents and legislators have failed to curb wasteful spending and improve government efficiency, as well as the size and scope of government.

Sometimes a few programs are eliminated every year, he said, but they usually save less than $15 billion. At the same time, new programs and expansion of existing programs overwhelm those efforts.

“An underlying reason for this consistent failure to improve government efficiency and eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse is Congress’s tendency to create a program to solve a problem,” Schatz said in his testimony. “Rather than spending the time to examine an issue in depth, including whether or not an existing program can address the subject matter, members are usually more likely to move forward with a new program.”

Schatz is no newcomer to the study of government waste. He has been with Citizens Against Government Waste since 1986. The group grew out of the Grace Commission formed by President Reagan.

Schatz points to efforts to streamline government and control federal spending that go back to the Hoover Commission formed by President Truman in 1947. Almost every president since has made some effort to trim government, or paid lip service to the need, but the results are disappointing.

There is no lack of evidence for government waste. The Government Accountability Office supplies Congress with stacks of data on programs that are redundant and overlapping.

Then there are those in Congress who advocate common sense spending. The leading voice in the Senate is Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who took the lead in the recent budget debate in exposing the horrendous waste and duplication in federal spending. He was a strong but lonely voice.

Another voice for spending sanity is current Kansas Governor and former Senator Sam Brownback. While in the Senate, he came up with an ideal solution to clean up federal spending patterned on the successful military base closing approach that forces Congress to vote up or down on base closures recommended by a commission. He got nowhere.

Schatz believes that Congress needs a forcing mechanism to cut spending enough to slow the rate of growth and reduce the record debt. He says a new Grace Commission or other action is required, in his words, “to prod Congress and energize taxpayers to reform and reorganize government to serve taxpayers more efficiently and effectively.”

As government spending speeds ahead and Congress approaches the vote on increasing the national debt limit, it is time to stop the vicious cycle of problems in search of programs. Time is running out.

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