Former President Ronald Reagan once lamented that "a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this earth." But an effort to put a stake into those never-dying programs made some headway last week in the U.S. Senate through a truly unique effort - bipartisanship.
It's not over yet.
In a move that surely would make our 40th president proud, Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, sought to implement a plan that would eliminate the tremendous waste of taxpayer dollars that permeates the Washington bureaucracy through redundancy. Ironically, Mr. Coburn's cure to the scourge of overspending was slipped into legislation seeking a $1.9 trillion increase in the nation's debt limit.
His plan was simple. Mr. Coburn's amendment would have capped the federal debt and immediately reduced federal spending by at least $120 billion by consolidating more than 640 duplicative government programs, cutting wasteful Washington spending and returning billions of dollars of unspent money.
Let's call it the Low-Fat Federal Diet Act, as it attempted to leave in the meat of federal programs but reduce calories by cutting out the extras. As first lady Michelle Obama champions the issue of combating American obesity, she should include the gluttonous appetite of our government for tax dollars.
Mr. Coburn pointed out on the Senate floor that this would fulfill President Obama's campaign promise to "spend taxpayer money wisely" and to "eliminate wasteful redundancy," saying that "too often, federal departments take on functions or services that are already being done or could be done elsewhere within the federal government more effectively."
But such moderation isn't beginning soon. Democrats in the Senate majority took the unusual approach of dividing Mr. Coburn's amendment into four parts, each requiring its own vote needing a 60-vote threshold. With bipartisan support, one passed, calling for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to do an annual study identifying duplicative programs in the federal government and make recommendations for consolidation or elimination of those programs that are redundant.
Though a baby-steps approach, members from both sides of the aisle embraced Mr. Coburn's idea. A comprehensive review is welcome, but it would not be the first time the GAO has looked at the problem.
Mr. Coburn's office conducted a non-exhaustive review of numerous past GAO studies (as well as other reports on government waste and abuse) and found some striking examples of bloated government currently being ignored.
In 2000, the GAO published a report that found 69 early-education programs were being administered by nine agencies and warned that such duplication would lead to ineffectiveness of the programs' original intent. Five years later, the GAO revisited the situation and once again found 69 early-education programs, but this time they were being administered by 10 agencies.
Over at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the department that would be in charge of one-sixteenth of our economy if President Obama's health care overhaul were successful, waste and abuse are more common than fliers reminding you to wash your hands. While the federal government does not care how bloated and fat it gets, HHS monitors most of the 21 programs designed to eliminate obesity among the nation's youth and still has an appetite for more.
In addition to the HHS grants that so often offend taxpayers when splayed in newspaper headlines, generous travel budgets expanded for HHS employees. Between 2000 and 2006, HHS spent $349 million on conferences, and then in 2008 alone, travel costs grew to $215 million.
That same year, the Food and Drug Administration, which is under HHS, spent a generous $41,030 on gift cards for select employees. On top of that, it gave $35 million in bonuses to senior executives last year.
FDA is not the only agency spending like a bunch of drunken sailors. In fact, drinking seems to be a popular subject at the National Institutes of Health. NIH spent $783,000 to pay malt liquor and marijuana users to keep a daily record of their substance-abuse habits.
Not to be outdone, the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA) spent $2.6 million to train Chinese prostitutes to drink responsibly on the job. NIAA also is spending close to a half-million taxpayer dollars over a period of years to study whether there is a link between drinking and having homosexual sex in Argentina.
And just to ensure that some of the money going to HHS is spent on "buying American," University of Illinois at Chicago's College of Nursing last year received a $3 million federal grant to continue research to identify risk factors for excessive drinking among lesbians. Keep in mind that before awarding this grant, HHS received $137 billion as part of President Obama's "stimulus" legislation passed at the beginning of last year. While some at HHS might find such studies stimulating, my guess is most taxpayers would not.
Though the costs of such grants might seem minuscule in the grand scheme of things, the message they send is that the government is out of control. And the American people clearly want the federal government to go on a diet.
A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 58 percent said they favored a smaller government with fewer services.
Sadly, the three other Coburn amendments broken out from his proposal, which all called for real cuts (including cutting $245 million from Congress' own budget), met defeat at the hands of senators who were not ready to cut up their taxpayer-backed credit cards.
Still, no lady the size of governmental bureaucracy has sung. As the budget goes forward, Mr. Coburn could win approval for his real cuts on a variety of fronts.
If the president is serious about making government more efficient, he needs to listen to his friend Tom Coburn a lot more. That way Mr. Obama can bring us closer to the "smart, effective government" he promised.
Tom McClusky is vice president of FRC Action and was a senior policy analyst at the National Taxpayers Union.