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Spending's Not Better the Second Time Around

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Before we take an ax to the federal budget, let's try a scalpel. Many things done in one federal department or agency are also done in others, according to a new Government Accountability Office study. Even wonderful programs don't get better in the duplicate, triplicate or quadruplicate. By locating and excising them, taxpayers could save billions, the GAO suggests, with minimal loss of government services.

Some possible examples: More than 20 agencies run 56 programs teaching financial literacy. Eighteen programs in three federal departments help the poor buy food. Over 100 programs in the Department of Transportation deal with highways. Seven federal agencies oversee drinking water along the Mexican border. The Army has developed a mine roller to protect soldiers from improvised explosive devices, and so has the Marine Corps.

The report turns a klieg light on hundreds of potential federal money pits -- each with its director, assistant director, assistant to the assistant, administrative staff, janitors, IT geeks, computer systems, copy machines, accountants, retirement packages, health coverage, trips to conferences and Christmas parties -- each adding little to the quality of life in our fair land.

One apparent megalopolis of overlap is the Department of Defense's Military Health System, where coordination of medical services seems a foreign concept. The assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force each has its own headquarters and staff overseeing health care. Each military service has its own surgeon general.

The GAO report is optimistically titled, "Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs, Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue." It is the first of its kind, to which one must ask, What took everyone so long?

Not that duplication hasn't been analyzed in bits and pieces. In 2001, for example, the RAND Corp. uncovered 13 studies on the Military Health System, 10 of which called for a stronger central authority that could consolidate much of the work. Since fiscal 2001, MHS spending has more than doubled, from $19 billion to $49 billion.

Of course, one must guard against oversimplifying the findings. Some activities may sound similar but not really be. For instance, the report found 44 federal employment and training programs with overlapping services, but you must ask, training whom for what? Some programs may involve teaching very different skill sets.

As for the politics of this, some progressives worry that budget-slashers will use the GAO study to kill off useful programs. They cite press releases from Sen. Tom Coburn's office claiming potential savings of $100 billion or more. Those attractively high numbers are strictly the Oklahoma Republican's -- and would seem to envision amputating more than duplicate appendages. Remember, the report doesn't say whether our government should or should not be doing something, but how many times it's doing it.

Meanwhile, savings achieved from cutting overlap and duplication also leaves more money for the good programs. And serious efforts to address government waste can only raise the public's confidence that their tax dollars are being properly spent.

One would do well to recall the wise words of Hubert Humphrey. Back in 1949, a hostile television interviewer asked the Minnesota liberal whether progressives like him cared about holding down the costs of government. Humphrey answered yes, but "economy in government to me doesn't necessarily mean spending little. It means spending what you have and spending it well."

This GAO report is about spending what we have well. And it offers the most logical starting place for reducing deficits: Find what can be chopped without being missed, then take it from there. All budget cutting should be as easy as this.

COPYRIGHT 2011 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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