LAMBRO: Tales from the rat hole

How Washington has spent decades deepening the debt

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Somewhere in the contentious debate over defunding Obamacare, we seem to have lost sight of the much larger need to sharply reduce the size and cost of government from top to bottom.

Don’t get me wrong. If Obamacare, the most unpopular federal program in decades, is not repealed and replaced with something better that will control health care costs, it will add trillions of dollars to the government’s budget over the ensuing years. So it’s a key target in the big spending battle.

As we’re learning this week, that is not easily done, though, because the Democrat-controlled Senate won’t approve a House budget provision to do so, and even if it did, there are not enough Republican votes to override President Obama’s certain veto.

That battle will play itself out over the coming days, but what about the larger, mostly forgotten issue of cutting the government’s bloated, unsustainable budget down to a far more affordable size?

The annual federal budget is moving inexorably toward the $4 trillion mark under President Obama’s policies, and we haven’t yet officially begun the enrollment process for Obamacare, which begins next week.

The automatic sequestration cuts will continue to slice $85.4 billion in defense and other discretionary spending (though only $42 billion in cash outlays). Still, the Congressional Budget Office says total outlays will continue to rise each year by an average of $238.6 billion.

In other words, we’ve got a huge spending crisis facing us right now and in the years to come that has somehow been pushed out of Congress’ collective mind — that is, if it has one.

Over the course of my career as a Washington reporter and as an investigative columnist, I’ve spent a great deal of that time as a critic of excessive, needless government spending.

In 1980, I wrote “Fat City: How Washington Wastes Your Taxes.” That book began with this sentence: “Our federal government has become a bloated, extravagant, paternalistic, remote, cluttered, disorganized, inefficient, frivolous, duplicative, archaic wasteland.”

Back then, the government was spending a mere $550 billion a year in fiscal 1980 and edging toward $616 billion in 1981.

The 1980 deficit was more than $40 billion, minuscule by today’s numbers, and the government’s debt was running around $839 billion. Interest payments on that debt were $57 billion.

Of course, in the last three decades it has gotten much worse. So here we are with federal spending skirting $3.6 trillion a year, a string of $1 trillion-plus budget deficits over the previous four years, and total debt nearing $17 trillion.

Nevertheless, the federal government was growing at an unprecedented pace at the time I began writing a string of books about curbing spending, digging into federal audits and congressional investigations into waste, fraud and abuse.

Before “Fat City,” I had written a more modest book that looked at just 50 unneeded federal programs costing $25 billion. They ran the gamut from the Interstate Commerce Commission to the Civil Aeronautics Board to something called the Congressional Floral Service. These three have since been abolished.

The title of that tiny book was “The Federal Rathole,” so named because the government auditors I interviewed kept telling me that all too often, bureaucrats were “pouring money down a rathole.”

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