- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2003

House committee chairmen have signed off on a plan, endorsed by Majority Leader Tom DeLay, to cut 1 percent from their respective parts of the federal budget by eliminating waste, fraud and abuse.

The support of the Republican leadership puts muscle behind an idea proposed months ago by House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle, Iowa Republican, and greeted with equal parts enthusiasm, skepticism and derision.

Under the plan, committee chairmen must identify by Sept. 2 specific instances of waste in their mandatory spending programs, which have levels of funding set by law rather than appropriated through the annual budget process. Its projected savings are $10 billion this year.

“We want to put the same discipline that the appropriators put into their [discretionary spending] process into the mandatory side,” Mr. Nussle said. “That has not been done over the last number of years to a great degree. Getting them to buy into it is a big thing.”

Jonathan Grella, spokesman for Mr. DeLay, said “we’re serious” about cutting out wasteful spending but said changing the spending culture of Washington won’t be easy.

“We were elected not to do what is easy, but what is right,” Mr. Grella said, adding that Mr. DeLay, Texas Republican, hopes this will be a “bipartisan effort.”

That cooperation is not guaranteed. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican and chairman of the Government Reform and Oversight Committee, said he anticipates some lines of criticism.

“One of the things you want to be cautious about is that if you find too much [waste], it’s your administration, and they tend to blame you, even though it might have predated” Republican control of Congress, Mr. Davis said. “But we have an affirmative obligation to make sure the taxpayers get their dollars.”

Democrats criticized Republicans during the budget process in March for cutting programs without regard to the effect it would have on beneficiaries. The same arguments can be expected as the waste-cutting process moves forward.

“We think it’s deceptive advertising because the cuts the Republicans are seeking go beyond waste, fraud and abuse,” said Chuck Fant, spokesman for Democrats on the House Budget Committee.

Mr. Fant cited a figure in the “original House Republican budget that required $14.6 billion in unspecified cuts to veterans benefits to root out waste, fraud and abuse.”

That money was to go to “old veterans, disabled veterans and the GI Bill for those returning from war,” Mr. Fant said. “Everyone wants to cut waste, fraud and abuse. The problem is the formula they’ve come up to do that.”

Some Republican staffers say they are excited about making the plan work. Eliminating waste from Social Security, federal employee pension plans and other programs is discussed every year, the staffers say, but little is done about it. After a splashy kickoff to the waste-cutting campaign scheduled for next week, they will be under pressure to deliver.

“If we don’t do this, we’ll end up looking stupid,” said a high-ranking Republican committee staffer. “We’re going to put ourselves in the hot seat to show the public that we are serious about ending it once and for all.”

The difference this time, Mr. Nussle said, is that the program will be a pet project of the Republican leadership and every committee chairman.

“This is the Tom Sawyer method where everyone gets a chance to paint the fence,” Mr. Nussle said. “I don’t care about the bottom line out here [in Congress] as much as I care about the bottom line of our constituents. It’s their money.”

Identifying specific instances of fraud is the key to the plan. Cuts to veterans benefits can be defended more easily, Mr. Nussle said, if every one of them has a story behind it.

For instance, Mr. Nussle said, a General Accounting Office report showed that the federal government was sending benefit checks to 5,500 veterans who had died. The veterans’ families were cashing the checks anyway.

“There isn’t anyone who would defend that kind of behavior,” Mr. Nussle said. “The same goes on in Social Security. The same goes on in the food stamps program.”

Several committees have started holding hearings on the waste in their areas of responsibility, and the rest will be pressured to do their part.

Sean Spicer, spokesman for Mr. Nussle, likened the process to a diet.

“You don’t try to lose 20 pounds the first week,” Mr. Spicer said. “You go for 5 pounds the first week. If we find 1 percent his year, maybe next year we find another 1 percent.”

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