“What we need to do is impose spending discipline in Washington, D.C.” Thus spoke President Bush as he challenged the Congress to join him in balancing the budget and cutting the enormous federal deficit. Great words, but was anyone, including his own Cabinet, listening to him?
Washington is a town that lives by the sad maxim: Budget is the sign of real power. The bigger your budget, the more important you are to the Beltway elite, regardless of party.
Conservatives once believed in cutting wasteful spending, but even now, after having been beaten like a drum in the 2006 elections, Republicans on the Hill and in the administration still find excuses for increasing government spending.
At the perennially challenged Government Services Administration, the new administrator, Lurita Doan, seems serious about cutting spending, imposing real fiscal discipline and making the agency accountable to the taxpayer.
What makes Lurita Doan so different? Perhaps it is her unlikely path to fiscal conservativism. Born and raised in the 9th Ward of New Orleans, she sat atop her house as flood waters destroyed her neighborhood during Hurricane Betsy. Her house would survive that storm, before being demolished during Hurricane Katrina.
She was one of the first African-Americans to integrate the exclusive private school system in New Orleans. You develop a tough exterior when you have racial insults and bricks thrown at you as a 7 year old.
After building a successful business in the private sector, Mrs. Doan took on the challenge of taking over a government agency with fiscal problems. She took office in June 2006 and did what, in Washington, is unthinkable. She reviewed the GSA budget from top to bottom with an eye on cutting nonperforming programs, antiquated and irrelevant projects that had lived on past their originally intended purpose, and excessive travel of senior agency executives. Then she actually made the cuts.
Why did she move so quickly? She inherited an agency more than $120 million in the red and convinced her department heads to voluntarily cut programs already funded and approved but not performing. She made retroactive cuts of several hundred million for both fiscal 2006 and 2007 and has proposed even deeper cuts to future budgets. To be sure, these cuts in federal spending at GSA won’t balance the federal budget, but at least someone with budget authority is taking the president at his word and acting like a real fiscal conservative.
Mrs. Doan’s push for greater fiscal accountability even helped spark the entrepreneurial energies within many of the career civil servants being directed to find better ways to accomplish the mission. One GSA employee came up with the inspired idea to cut what the government paid to warehouse excessive government office supplies. He judged that GSA could give away these office supplies and exit from expensive warehouse costs.
Schools in New Orleans, hard-hit by Katrina, needed just those very supplies to get back into operation. A deal was quickly struck to move more than $600,000 in excess government office supplies to schools that desperately needed them. Not only did schools hit hard by Katrina get some badly needed help, but equally importantly, taxpayers actually saved money in the process.
So what has Mrs. Doan gotten for her bold leadership and fiscal responsibility? Soon after she pushed the agency to find sources of wasteful spending, she encountered the expected resistance from one of her departments heads who was asked, as all were, to simply live within the budget appropriated by Congress and to forgo part of the extra money — a $5 million agency supplement — that the other offices within GSA provided to the Office of the Inspector General on top of its appropriated budget. The GSA IG refused to make any improvements in his operations or recognize that any wasteful spending could be identified or reduced.
Quite predictably, the IG then complained to Congress, threatening all sorts of calamities if forced to live within the appropriated budget. Most members of Congress are still unaware that the GSA IG receives a supplement over and above the appropriation. Then, The Washington Post theatrically reported that Mrs. Doan was trying to limit the inspector general’s ability to conduct independent audits and investigations by cutting the budget. They misled their readers, just as the IG misled Congress, by not revealing that the OIG was seeking an increase to its supplement while every other GSA department was cutting its budget.
Soon after the insistence upon a return to fiscal discipline at GSA, the OIG began to scrutinize and review every action Mrs. Doan made. The OIG found Mrs. Doan had signed off on a quote for a purchase order for a study on why GSA previously had difficulties opening opportunities for small and minority companies. Long before the IG’s inquiry, the GSA general counsel and a career procurement professional, reviewed the proposed purchase order, recommended against it and no contract was ever awarded, and no money was spent. But, the IG seized on a procedural error and turned it into a full-blown investigation at taxpayer expense.
Mrs. Doan is new to Washington politics and government bureaucracy; but she should have known any effort to actually cut federal spending would be fiercely resisted. On the other hand, we can all take hope from her answer: Just keep cutting. Keep instilling fiscal discipline. Keep doing what the president has asked her and all his agency heads to do.
These sorts of experiences make you a tougher and more resolved. If fiscal conservatives are ever to return to power, they must find a little more backbone and a lot more courage.