A path to deficit reduction

A path to deficit reduction

March 4th, 2011 in Opinion Times

The Republican-controlled U.S. Congress is leading the charge to whack billions of dollars from the federal budget. The highly politicized campaign has cast a wide net, covering everything from funds for local projects like a new lock at the Chickamauga Dam to money for vital national education, health, jobs and other programs that directly affect all but the most affluent strata of U.S. society. Legislators should check closer to home for opportune targets before looking afar. There's a lot of waste in Washington. Reducing it could save the nation $62 billion annually and, perhaps, spare viable programs from the knife.

A blueprint for the task is available from the Government Accountability Office. The most partisan of the budget-cutters, though, seem more interested in pleasing tea partiers and others with similar philosophies than in doing the homework a true public servant should do prior to embarking on a campaign with such far-reaching effects. Even a quick perusal of the GAO study should open the most jaded of political eyes.

The GAO, a nonpartisan agency respected by members of both parties, spent months studying inefficiencies and redundancies in federal bureaucracies. It uncovered plenty. Forty-seven different job training programs, 80 programs to help poor and disabled individuals meet their transportation needs and 82 separate programs on teacher equality were among the findings. Some programs undoubtedly are useful and provide a valuable monetary return. Others probably are not. Identifying and eliminating the latter, or at least combining program functions and paring administrative costs, is a task Congress should willingly assume.

The problem, of course, is sorting out which programs are useful and which are not. Some, but not all, appear to have adequate oversight. The GAO study says that about half of the 47 job training programs with a combined budget of $18 billion have not had performance reviews since 2004. No wonder the GAO concluded that "little is known about the effectiveness of most programs." Clearly, that learning curve needs to be improved.

Part of the problem is the size and scope of the federal bureaucracy. Sometimes, it seems, two agencies work at the same purpose for no benefit. The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for the safety of chicken feed, but the Agriculture Department is responsible for the health of young chickens. And both the FDA and Agriculture Department have what seems to be overlapping oversight responsibilities for the fish and seafood industries. The GAO identified many similar cases. No one knows for sure what works and what doesn't. Given the money at stake, finding out would be beneficial.

The proliferation of government computer data centers is another area where significant savings are possible. In just over 10 years, the number of centers has grown to 2,100 from 432. Some of the servers, experts say, have utilization rates under 10 percent. One study, conducted by a private agency, suggests that the federal government might save over $200 billion over 10 years without degrading capacity if the centers were consolidated. That's surely worth consideration.

There's no certainty, of course, that the GAO report will lead to change. Members of both parties in Congress are quite fond of talking about cutting the fat out of the budget but reluctant to do so when it affects their pet programs. They prefer a broader, far less personal method.

The U.S. deficit, enormous and growing more so daily, requires a disciplined, nonpartisan approach if it is to be reduced in a responsible manner. The GAO study offers a starting point for the White House, Republicans and Democrats to work jointly on the task.