Wasting a Good Opportunity
"Senseless, irresponsible" is how Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md.,
described the request. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, asserted that "our
job is not to react to requests that have no basis in reality."
What in the world was this odd request?
To search the federal budget for waste, fraud and abuse.
As part of the 2004 federal budget, the House and Senate Budget
Committees asked each congressional committee to examine the
entitlement programs under its discretion. The modest goal was to
identify 1 percent of entitlement spending as waste, fraud or
abuse. Committees were asked to report their findings to Congress
by Sept. 2, 2003.
Less than half of the congressional committees bothered to submit
their findings by the deadline. The contempt both parties displayed
toward this request exemplifies Congress institutional bias against
saving taxpayer dollars.
The Democrats' approach has been to deny the existence of
government waste. A high-ranking appropriations official recently
claimed that cutting waste is impossible because every entitlement
dollar goes to a legitimate recipient. In other words, not a dollar
is lost to administrative waste or efficiencies, and no one is
cheating federal programs. Such nonsense is the product of
political spin: Deny the existence of government waste, then tell
seniors and veterans that mean-spirited budget cutters are gunning
for their Medicare and veteran's benefits. That message is as
powerful as it is misleading.
Yet Republicans deserve even more blame. As the majority party,
they chair every congressional committee. Republican committee
chairmen could have directed their staffs to identify instances of
waste, fraud and abuse for the committee's Republican majority to
The stubborn refusal of most committees to do so is not much of a
surprise, though. The Republican Party may have once stood for
fiscal responsibility, but it has since succumbed to the temptation
of playing Santa Claus to whatever voter blocks (farmers, seniors,
soccer moms) it thinks will swing the next election. To those who
see government spending mainly as a means to buy re-election,
reducing waste is a thankless and potentially dangerous
Such profligacy comes at a high price for taxpayers. In 2003,
federal spending will reach $21,000 per household, up from $16,000
just four years ago. Taxpayers have been temporarily shielded from
these costs because of budget deficits that now top $400 billion
and could reach $600 billion within a few years. But all spending
must eventually be funded through taxes, and budget deficits only
delay the inevitable choices Congress must make. Reducing federal
spending is the only way to reduce the long-run tax burden.
If Congress lacks the will to even identify waste, fraud and abuse
-- at a mere penny on the dollar -- there is little hope that they
will actually reform wasteful programs. And if they won't reform
wasteful programs, they clearly aren't ready to undertake the
larger reforms necessary to get the budget under control.
On the positive side, substantial groundwork has been laid. The
General Accounting Office, Congress's own auditors, has published
hundreds of reports identifying waste, fraud and abuse in
entitlement programs. After only a cursory review of those
documents, The Heritage Foundation identified $300 billion in waste
that could be trimmed over the next decade - at a savings of over
$2,700 per household.
For example, Medicare overpayments top $12 billion annually.
Medicare also pays up to eight times the price that other agencies
pay for the same drugs and medical supplies (which also raises
co-payments for Medicare beneficiaries). The Earned Income Tax
Credit loses $9 billion to payment errors per year. Gas tax fraud
costs taxpayers $1 billion per year.
If Congress expanded the search to include discretionary programs,
they would find that the federal government simply cannot locate
$17 billion it spent in 2002. They would learn that the Justice
Department has lost 400 laptop computers and 775 weapons as a
result of poor inventory controls. They would discover how the
Department of Education recently gave $55,000 in student aid to a
But take heart: An ambitious group of House freshmen -- Mario
Diaz-Balart and Tom Feeney of Florida and Jeb Hensarling of Texas
-- have formed the "Washington Waste Watchers" to root out waste,
fraud and abuse. Fellow freshman Chris Chocola of Indiana has
written legislation to cut waste from the Federal Aviation
Administration. As the taxpayer cost of government drifts upward,
the rest of Congress would be wise to follow the freshmen's
Brian Riedl is
Grover M. Hermann fellow in federal budgetary affairs in the Roe
Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire