Rep. Jim Nussle takes on wasteful and fraudulent spending.
The federal government is falling ever deeper into the red, but in Washington there seems to be no deficit of wasteful and even fraudulent spending.
The IRS recently estimated that $8.5 billion to $9.9 billion was paid out improperly out of $31.3 billion in earned income tax credits in 2002, despite a five year effort to curb such abuse. Over at the Department of Education, government auditors found hundreds of millions of dollars wasted, including fraudulent Pell Grant schemes and even an employee buying porn on the Internet with a government credit card. And, as the General Accounting Office uncovered, Medicare is often tricked into paying twice the market price for some drugs.
House Budget Committee chairman Jim Nussle (R., Iowa) and a few others are leading an effort to cut waste. Mr. Nussle was shouted down earlier this year when he called for a 1% across-the-board spending cut. But he got a helping hand last spring in the congressional budget resolution, which outlines spending priorities. A few sentences stuck in the middle of the bill require all congressional committees to look for waste and report their findings by this past Tuesday.
Unfortunately, most of those reports are going to be late. That's not to say they're not being taken seriously. Mr. Nussle has already held hearings, posted his findings on the Internet and asked citizens to report wasteful spending on his committee's Web site, www.budget.house.gov. And several House committees have asked for extensions so they can include reports filed by Democrats and vote on their findings. Making big spenders go on the record, either against cutting waste or for cuts, makes the short delay well worth it.
Over in the Senate, the Foreign Relations and Government Affairs committees have already turned in their reports and over the next couple of weeks so will all of the other committees. Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions asks citizens to report waste on his Web site.
But instead of digging for waste, senators are often preoccupied just holding the line on spending. Before the August recess, Sen. Thad Cochran (R., Miss.) had to fend off efforts to increase spending on the Homeland Security bill 60% above next year's already enlarged budget. The big spenders were relentless, trying nine times to add $17.7 billion in pork next year and $254 billion over 10 years. Thankfully, Mr. Cochran was able to fend off these increases.
These fights go on all the time underneath the radar screens of most news outlets. Yesterday, the Senate's first day back, senators were alerted to three amendments to pin pork-barrel spending to pending legislation. Robert Byrd (D., W.Va.) wants to add $6.1 billion to Title I (in addition to the $1 billion in new spending in next year's budget), and Daniel Akaka (D., Hawaii) wants an additional $5 million for "economics education programs." Both are still pending. The third--Harry Reid (D., Nev.) wants to increase spending on several education programs by $210 million--was beaten back.
The fight over spending cannot come soon enough. The Congressional Budget Office calculated recently that "discretionary spending" has increased more than 15% over the last two years. That, while the economy stumbled and federal revenues fell. The deficit is much more than tax cuts and the war on terror. The Cato Institute reports that nondefense outlays increased 12.2% in 2002 and 13.7% in 2003. What's more, under Ronald Reagan nondefense discretionary spending was cut 13.5%, compared with a 20.8% increase since President Bush was sworn in. This deficit is caused by overspending.
In October Mr. Nussle hopes to issue a comprehensive report of waste dug up by the House, which will include ways to clean up some of the worst abuses. The Senate Budget Committee will likely issue its own findings. The benchmark in Washington for whether you care about a problem is always how much you're willing to spend on it. There is often little effort to ensure that money is spent effectively. By going after waste, Mr. Nussle is also fighting a battle over accountability.
There are plenty of critics, of course, who complain that curbing waste is nice, but doesn't even come close to addressing the federal deficit. South Carolina Democrat John Spratt, for one, has complained about defense spending and tax cuts. He points out that the projected five year deficit is $1.9 trillion. Any savings through efforts to curb waste would "reduce these deficits by only a fraction," he wrote in a letter to The Wall Street Journal.
He's right, of course. Only a rising economy as well as tough policy decisions to cut spending will bring the federal government back to fiscal solvency. But it's hard to see how focusing on waste is a mistake.