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LAMBRO: Persistent plague of Washington waste
Programs Reagan tried to kill are still bleeding
Question of the Day
Archaic, bloated, duplicative, wasteful, inefficient government is like the weather. People complain about it, but no one has figured out how to change it.
I took some comprehensive, well-received whacks at the problem in several books in the 1980s, one of which was "Fat City -- How Washington Wastes Your Taxes." It focused on waste and wantonness in more than a hundred agencies, programs and other backwater bureaucracies, costing more than $100 billion a year, that cried out to be terminated, downsized or sold on the auction block.
That was big money then, but it wouldn't even dent the debt in the Age of Obama, which has been ramping up budget deficits at the rate of more than a trillion dollars a year.
Someone gave Ronald Reagan a copy of "Fat City" at the start of his 1980 presidential campaign, and he began referring to it in his speeches and interviews, and handed out copies at his first Cabinet meeting.
He believed government wasted a lot of the money that Americans sent to the Internal Revenue Service each year and that many of the programs Congress had created over the decades needed to be either abolished, consolidated or cut to the bone.
Not only did he think no one would miss many of these all-but-forgotten agencies, but that the money saved was better left in the wallets and bank accounts of the nation's businesses and workers, creating jobs, strengthening families and expanding the national economy.
Reagan succeeded in pulling a dispirited nation out of a deep, two-year recession in the early 1980s through his Kennedy-style, across-the-board tax cuts. Unemployment rates fell significantly, the economy soared and tax revenue rose because people were working again.
He also made strides in fighting waste, fraud and abuse through the sweeping Grace Commission reforms, and he managed to curb the budgets of programs here and there. A spendthrift Congress, however, fought his efforts -- often to a standstill -- every step of the way. Reagan's combative budget director David Stockman privately expressed deep frustration to this reporter that he hadn't been able to put more budget-cutting scalps on his belt, and he wasn't blaming only the Democrats.
Just before he left his post in 1985, Mr. Stockman called me in for an interview. On his desk was a heavily marked-up copy of an article I had written for Washingtonian magazine about where to cut the budget.
"We've had a four-year shot at going after all these little mothers, and nobody around here will do it," he told me. "But the point is, when you go through these things over and over, and you see how embedded the resistance is -- and it's not just big-spending Democrats, it's Republicans when it comes down to parochial interests -- then you realize how insuperable the task is."
He then went down my list of targets and complained, name by name, how Republican lawmakers had fought him tooth-and-nail to preserve these programs.
That was then. This is now. There is plenty of blame to go around. The government is grotesquely swollen with waste-filled programs and agencies that no longer serve any useful purpose and need to be ended.
It has become much worse under President Obama's administration. He is interested only in enlarging the size of the government and spending more, as is obvious by a long list of regulatory and social welfare programs he has created or wants to expand.
You could wallpaper every building in the nation's capital with the pages of countless federal reports on the amount of waste that has been dug up by investigators. That is not a priority on Capitol Hill or in this administration.
Take, for example, a recent Government Accountability Office report that looked into the amount of duplication throughout the government. Among its 345 pages:
20 federal agencies that run 56 programs dealing with financial literacy.
80 economic development programs sprinkled across four agencies that cost taxpayers $6.5 billion.
Transportation Department spending of $58 billion on 100 programs employing 6,000 employees "that haven't evolved since 1956."
15 federal agencies that administer more than 30 food-related laws.
Five departments overseeing nearly $6.5 billion dealing with bioterrorism.
"This report shows we could save taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars without cutting services. And in many cases smart consolidations will improve service," said Sen. Tom Coburn, the waste-fighting Oklahoma Republican known as "Dr. No," who requested the study.
Dubious spending can be found in virtually every corner of the vast federal bureaucracy, often in agencies that are among the government's most sacred cows, immune from any budget cuts.
Mr. Obama has been pushing for more spending on science, including the $31 billion National Institutes of Health. But an investigation by health care analyst David Maris of Forbes magazine found some shocking expenditures.
They included $386,000 to study massage therapy on rabbits, $453,000 to study breathing in meditation and $1.1 million to study weight loss through medication, all part of a long list of studies that Mr. Maris called "flaky."
In a perfect world, Congress would have an efficient, high-tech, cross-referenced, legislative oversight system to apply a hard-nosed annual review of every program and expenditure in the government. None exists. Its creaky, disorganized, snail's-pace committee structure is basically the same one that existed in the 18th century.
Most of the wasteful, expendable programs I criticized in "Fat City" are still there, spending money. They include the Export-Import Bank, which bankrolls the richest Fortune 500 companies; a small-business agency that, for all its billions of dollars, has had a minuscule impact on business creation; and agriculture programs right out of the horse-and-buggy era.
One of these days, a presidential candidate will run on a radical platform of overhauling this antiquated, wasteful bureaucracy we have constructed over 200 years.
Until then, we are paying through the nose for a lot more government than we need or can afford that is quickly eroding the foundations of our country and its economy.
Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and former chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.
© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
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