House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) today declared "victory" in the battle to eliminate wasteful federal spending. There is simply no fat left to cut from the federal budget, he said.
This comes as quite a surprise to most Americans. With federal spending now topping $22,000 per household, polls indicate that 71 percent of Americans are more bothered by how their taxes are spent than by the amount of taxes they pay. The average American believes that about half of his or her tax dollars are wasted.
The American people have a point. There is so much fat in government spending-from $300 million bridges to islands with 50 residents in Alaska to billions of dollars in overpayments by federal departments-that it is hard to know where to begin. Declarations of victory are, to say the least, rather premature.
The Majority Leader has issued a pledge, however, to those concerned about the emergency spending that Congress is now appropriating: "My answer to those that want to offset the spending is sure, bring me the offsets, I'll be glad to do it." In response to that good-faith commitment, this paper lists a few easy places to start cutting, although they are just the tip of the waste iceberg.
Waste, Fraud, and Abuse
In the twenty years since the Grace Commission first shined a spotlight on waste, fraud, and abuse in the federal government, the problem has continued to build. For many lawmakers, executive oversight has taken a backseat to the higher priority of securing pork projects. Here are several current examples of federal waste that should be extremely uncontroversial to rein in:
- The federal government made $20 billion in overpayments in 2001;
- The Defense Department wasted $100 million on unused flight tickets from 1997 to 2003 and never bothered to collect refunds, even though the tickets were reimbursable;
Massive farm subsidies go to several members of Congress and celebrity "hobby farmers" such as David Rockefeller, Ted Turner, Scottie Pippen, and former Enron CEO Ken Lay; and
- Numerous government programs are wastefully duplicative, such as the 342 economic development programs; 130 programs serving the disabled; 130 programs serving at-risk youth; 90 early childhood development programs; 75 programs funding international education, cultural, and training exchange activities; and 72 federal programs dedicated to assuring safe water.
This page lists 25 more particularly egregious examples of waste, fraud, and abuse.
In addition, the federal government cannot account for $24.5 billion that it spent in 2003. More attentive congressional oversight could uncover where this money went and whether some or all of it could be saved and put to better use.
Lawmakers spend much of their time diverting federal money to specific projects in their home states. Many of these pork projects are bought and sold by lobbyists, who, for a generous commission, help clients to obtain government grants without having to go through the regular channel of justifying projects to a federal agency. Since 1998, the number of pork projects has leapt from 2,000 to 14,000 per year. The Fiscal Year 2005 omnibus spending bill includes these spending items:
- $450,000 for the Baseball Hall of Fame;
- $97,000 for the Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston, Maine;
- $25,000 to develop a curriculum to study mariachi music in the Clark County, Nevada, School District;
- $350,000 for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio;
- $150,000 for the Therapeutic Horseback Riding Program at the Lady B Ranch in California;
- $950,000 for the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania;
- $250,000 for the Police Activities League Center in Anaheim, California
- $2,000,000 to relocate a kitchen in Fairbanks, Alaska; and
- $250,000 for the Alaska Statehood Celebration.
This page lists many more particularly egregious examples of pork barrel spending from the FY 2005 appropriations omnibus.
Because good intentions alone are not enough to make good government, President George W. Bush created the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) to assess whether government programs actually achieve their objectives. After the first three years of PART, 60 percent of all federal programs have been examined. Out of 1,236 programs measured, only 38 percent were rated "effective" or "moderately effective." By contrast, 40 percent were deemed either "ineffective" or unable to demonstrate results. Yet in FY 2004, $154 billion was appropriated for programs classified as ineffective or unable to demonstrate results. Congress largely ignored President Bush's calls to terminate many of these programs.
Congressional rules require that all funded programs undergo regular reauthorization so that Congress can audit funding and modernize enabling statutes. Yet in 2005, 167 unauthorized programs received $170 billion in federal funds. Many of these controversial programs lack the votes for reauthorization, but Congress quietly funds them anyway. In 2005, programs funded with expired authorizations include:
- The National Endowment for the Arts,
- The National Endowment for the Humanities,
- The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and
- Community Development Block Grants.
The entire list is available from the Congressional Budget office on this page.
Clearly, Congress could save tens of billions of dollars by simply enforcing its rule against appropriating funds to programs that do not have the support to be reauthorized.
Rep. Delay has asked for offsets, and now Congress should act upon them. A renewed war on wasteful spending could easily save $100 billion or more per year, enough to offset the expenses of responding to Hurricane Katrina, as well as the costs of other priorities. If lawmakers have the will, there is certainly the waste.
Brian Riedl is Grover M. Hermann Fellow in Federal Budgetary Affairs in the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.