The following op-ed is excerpted and adapted from Sen. Tom Coburn's new book, "The Debt Bomb: A Bold Plan to Stop Washington from Bankrupting America." This is the third of a four-part series.
When Washington is finally forced to confront its unsustainable fiscal course, the scope of deficit reduction required to solve the problem will be much closer to $9 trillion than it is to the $1 trillion or so in phony spending cuts that have been considered in Washington.
The next step in our fight for survival -- after ending earmarks -- should be ending duplication in the federal budget. The government is full of such low-hanging fruit.
The Government Accountability Office has documented at least $200 billion in annual duplication alone. Nine federal agencies spend approximately $18 billion annually to administer 47 separate job training programs that don't work. Twenty separate agencies run 56 different financial literacy programs (why Congress believes it is qualified to teach financial literacy is beyond me). Meanwhile, 15 agencies monitor food safety. One agency manages cheese pizza (FDA), but if you buy a pepperoni pizza, that's another agency (USDA).
When the GAO report came out, both sides of the aisle viewed it as an unbiased and authoritative call to action. Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said the report illustrated the "virtual incompetence" in the federal government. Senate Majority Leader Reid agreed. "Those are places we can cut money. Let's do it."
The problem is the Senate has done absolutely nothing to solve this problem. This is tragic because the scope of waste and stupidity in government is breathtaking.
Consider a few other examples I've highlighted in oversight reports:
We've given "Energy Star" certifications to gasoline-powered alarm clocks. We pay farmers billions to not grow crops. We send California winemakers on wine tasting trips to Europe and Asia. USDA spends millions promoting cheese consumption, then spends millions more fighting obesity.
Politicians' disease-specific earmarks that go to the disease with the best celebrity lobbyists have siphoned dollars away from more promising research. Meanwhile, we use federal funds to study trendy baby names, sponsor fashion shows, and study energy fields and distance healing through the National Institutes of Health. (It's a shame we can't do distance budgeting.)
Americans are losing their homes, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development can't figure out why its vehicle fleet has increased 70 percent since 2004. "[W]e can't explain it," HUD says. Nor can HUD explain why the Philadelphia Housing Authority spent housing funds on lavish gifts for executives, $500,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit claim against its director, and $17,000 for a party with belly dancers.
At the same time, we send unemployment checks to millionaires. Maine, for some reason, spent $60,000 of its federal unemployment insurance funds on a 36-foot mural containing images of labor union strikes. Speaking of jobs, we pay the National Labor Relations Board the same amount we did 30 years ago for only half the work.
Americans loathe flying, but beleaguered small airports receive generous subsidies. Kentucky's Williamsburg-Whitley County Airport received $11 million in federal money to build an airport with a 5,500-foot lighted runway, a Colonial-style terminal with white columns, and hundreds of acres for growth, even though it does not have any airline passengers and is used only by private airplanes. On a typical day, the airport has two or three flights.
This list goes on and on. Each tells the story of a government that is too big to succeed.
These examples, and the massive amount of duplication in government, are just the symptoms of the deeper problem we face today -- a Congress that refuses to set priorities and acknowledge how easy it is to get rid of massive amounts of waste.
If you want to change Washington, you have to change who is here.
Dr. Tom Coburn is a Republican U.S. senator from Oklahoma.