August 2, 2005

August 2, 2005 | Commentary on Legal Issues

Legislative Lowdown -- Week of August 1

Last month the House of Representatives sent an unambiguous signal to the incompetent bureaucrats at the United Nations when it passed the strongest UN reform bill in decades. The message: End the waste, corruption, overpayments and ineffectiveness, or risk losing up to half of the amount of money that the U.S. contributes to UN operations.

Explicit throughout this legislation is a sound premise-namely, that large, unwieldy bureaucracies such as the UN contain massive levels of waste, and that the only way to eliminate this waste is to withhold funds or impose non-negotiable across-the-board cuts should effective reforms not transpire.

One reform in the House bill, for example, requires UN bureaucrats to "identify the lowest priority activities equivalent to 15% of their budget request or face an across-the-board reduction of such amount."

Tough stuff, yes, but the legislation passed with relative ease, 221 to 184.

Taxpayers aware of this precedent might well ask: What about adopting a similar bare-knuckles approach to government waste here at home?

According to a recent study by the Government Accountability Office, the non-partisan arm of Congress that scrutinizes federal expenditures, the extent of waste in our own federal government may rival that in the UN. Looking at the 2004 budget, GAO investigators identified $45.4 billion in improper payments in just 41 federal programs. "Improper payments" include funds expended without adequate documentation for services not provided, or provided to ineligible beneficiaries in programs such as Medicare, Social Security, food stamps or Medicaid.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R.-Okla.), who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Financial Management, presided over a hearing recently at which these figures were unveiled. An astounded Coburn described the level of waste as nothing less than an "abuse of taxpayer trust" that is "inexcusable … while the government takes up to 40% of [an Oklahoman's] income." Coburn believes that if every federal program were scrutinized, the true level of overpayments could be as high as $100 billion.

Hail Hefley!

One member of Congress has waged a relentless, and at times lonely, battle against wasteful and excessive federal spending: Joel Hefley, the veteran Colorado Republican who represents Colorado Springs.

For years, Hefley has issued his "Porker of the Week" awards in which he highlights instances of government waste. Recent awards include:

The FBI's stubborn decision to spend more than $100 million on a software system that officials knew wouldn't meet the agency's needs.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's paying $31 million to 12,000 Florida residents who suffered no harm from last year's hurricanes.

And the House of Representatives' restoring more than $600 million to Amtrak, even though on certain routes the per-passenger federal subsidy is so high that, as Hefley observes, "it would be cheaper for the federal government to shut down those routes and buy a round-trip airline ticket for each passenger to the same destination."

But Hefley's dedication to stamping out waste goes beyond mere press releases. For many years, he has offered amendments to trim non-defense spending bills by a modest 1%. This year, he offered seven such amendments that collectively would have reduced federal outlays by $3.3 billion, less than one-tenth the amount of overpayments uncovered by the GAO.

'Whimper and Go Away'

Yet Hefley's amendments attracted scant support, ranging from a low of 80 to a high of only 117 votes, a far cry from the 218 votes needed to pass legislation in the House. A hardy group of 55 House members achieved perfect 100% scores on the "Hefley Index," with another 22 supporting him on all but one of his seven tries. (Find out who they are here http://www.humaneventsonline.com/article.php?id=8383 >.)

Three Democrats stand out for having achieved Hefley's definition of perfection: Representatives Melissa Bean (Ill.), John Tanner (Tenn.) and Gene Taylor (Miss). They were joined by dozens of conservative stalwarts, such as Representatives Trent Franks (Ariz.), John Hostettler (Ind.), James Sensenbrenner (Wis.) and Sue Myrick (N.C.).

Most House members, it seems, are more willing to force the UN bureaucracy to root out waste than our bureaucracies here in Washington.

During one of his floor statements, Hefley struck a plaintive note, saying, "The [Appropriations] Committee will oppose me and beat me into submission; I will whimper and go away."

Please don't go away, Mr. Hefley. Persevere in your mission to rein in our bloated government. Some of us see-and appreciate-what you do.

Mike Franc, who has held a number of positions on Capitol Hill, is vice president of Government Relations at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies

First appeared in Human Events