In a possible outbreak of bipartisanship, lawmakers from both chambers joined together at a hearing on waste in government Thursday and vowed to move legislation containing spending reductions both parties can agree on.
The result was a lovefest of new promises to shrink the $680 billion federal deficit by means ranging from cleaning up the Pentagon’s books to curbing agricultural subsidies to stopping benefits payments to dead people to reforming information technology procurement.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, began by predicting the hearing -- which assembled an array of anti-waste advocacy groups -- would be a “grim” indictment of rising and waste-worsened deficits under President Obama. But by the end, Issa was promising to guarantee a vote in his committee “beginning today and every week” on any legislation sent over from the Senate that attacks wasteful programs as identified in the annual “Wastebook” compiled by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
Coburn, ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, testified that Congress “gets along too well” in approving budgets that contain waste and said “we have to do the hard work of winning over the chairmen of the committees with jurisdiction” to enact reforms.
“Agencies don’t know the problems because most don’t even know what programs they have,” Coburn added, citing as an example of wasteful duplication, 679 renewable energy programs at 23 agencies costing $15 billion a year. “The Homeland Security Department has no idea where its grant money is going,” he said. “The only agency that’s effective at grantwriting is the Institute of Libraries and Museum Services because it’s known around the country that if you mess with them, you won’t get another grant.”
Asked by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., whether he had implemented cuts to any of the putative boondoggles outlined in his Wastebook, Coburn said, despite some “squawking” from an agency he criticized for funding grants on “how Congress works,” he has inserted amendments to bills, but they have not become law.
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the Senate panel chairman who also testified at the hearing, spoke of the 80-20 rule, in which legislators move bills if they agree on 80 percent of their contents. He said the two chambers and parties should “marry our fortunes together” and come up with a waste reduction approach with three components. Those would include entitlement reform, additional revenues and a “look at everything we do in government so we can shift from a spendthrift culture to a thrift culture.”
Carper stressed that the Obama administration, through the Office of Management and Budget, and Congress’s Government Accountability Office agree on ways to reduce improper payments and sell off unnecessary federal properties.
Hailing the new management agenda of OMB Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell and deputy director for management Beth Cobert, Carper said, “Let’s partner on finding the 80 percent we agree on and increase the leverage of our subcommittee or committee.”
House panel Ranking Member Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md., emphasized that the Defense Department, with the largest federal agency budget, appears repeatedly on GAO’s high-risk list and other studies of waste. “It would be a big step in the right direction if DOD could produce, for the first time, an auditable financial statement,” he said.
Issa noted that the administration agrees with his plan to save money by having the Postal Service cut back deliveries to five days a week.
Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., who has introduced legislation titled the “Taxpayers’ Right to Know” to require agencies to publicly list all programs, their staff and metrics for success,, called for both parties to stop passing “message bills” that contain “poison pills” that inevitably draw resistance from the opposing party.
Some harmony between left and right was also displayed by the four witnesses from nonprofit advocacy groups, though their testimony became ideological and philosophical. Chris Edwards, director of tax policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, said, “As an economist, I have a broader view of waste. Waste means the misallocation of resources to low-value activities. It means government spending on projects that cost more than the benefits they create. It means subsidies and regulations that cause individuals and businesses to reduce their productive efforts or to engage in unproductive activities.”
But representatives from the right-leaning National Taxpayers Union and the left-leaning U.S. Public Interest Research Group together promoted their recent joint study outlining 65 ways to reduce spending.
As the hearing ended, Carper said, “I can’t tell you how many times people have come to me and said, ‘I don’t mind if you raise my taxes, just don’t waste my money.” He advised agencies to heed the lyrics of the old Rolling Stones song, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes you might find you get what you need.”