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A viewpoint by Cal Thomas: Waste much, want much

June 16, 2001

In the middle of dueling comments recently between President Bush and House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt about whether the new tax cut is a boon to the economy (Bush), or a sop to the rich that will return us to deficit spending, huge debt and the end of civil society (Gephardt) came the baritone voice of Republican Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee.

Thompson delivered to Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels a two-volume report compiled by the Senate Government Affairs Committee, which Thompson chaired until Democrats took over the Senate leadership. The report details waste and fraud in government costing billions of dollars.

‘‘Across the board, government is being undermined,'' said Thompson at a Capitol Hill news conference.

Thompson said, ‘‘there's pervasive and continuous mismanagement, waste, fraud and duplication'' in much of the federal government ‘‘that the average American would find shocking.''

The real threat to government financial stability and its ability to meet its obligations is not the tax cut but government's failure to be competent and honest with the money taxpayers fork over. Former Vice President Al Gore was supposed to have ‘‘re-invented government.'' It appears he reinforced its worst habits.

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The recent problems with the FBI not knowing where some if its records were in the Timothy McVeigh case, and the Postal Service claim of a huge surplus — only to reverse itself and ‘‘discover'' it is operating under a huge deficit and needs still another rate increase — are two examples.

Thompson cited four problem areas he called ‘‘endemic to government.''

The first is work-force management. The report blames staff reductions in the Clinton-Gore administration which, it says, ‘‘actually detracted from the capacity of agencies to carry out essential functions and made them more vulnerable to fraud, waste and mismanagement.'' Thompson says government is losing too many good people and not attracting enough new ones, at least in part because of the difficulties in getting people confirmed and the massive paperwork and intrusive background investigations required of high-level nominees.

The second problem mentioned by Thompson is financial mismanagement throughout government: ‘‘The government can't pass an audit, it can't balance its books, and the same can be said for just about every component and department of government,'' he said. "We don't know how much money we have, we don't know how much money we spend and we don't know how much various programs cost.''

An astounding $20 billion in overpayments are identified in the report. Thompson says that's just the tip of the iceberg. Medicare alone has paid $20 million to people who are dead; the payments began after they died. The GAO has placed four different areas on the ‘‘high-risk'' financial mismanagement list. Among them are the Defense Department, which Thompson called ‘‘the poster child for financial mismanagement, and has been for years and years. We've seen one trillion dollars in accounting entries that were not supported by the proper documentation,'' he said.

Thompson cited $41 million spent on an ammunition tracking system that was abandoned after eight years because the ammunition could not be properly tracked. Good for President Bush for refusing to pump new money into the Pentagon until it has accounted for what has already been spent.

Area three named by Thompson for improvement is information technology management.

‘‘We spend $40 billion a year for it," he said, but ‘‘we can't manage major computer projects.''

Area four is overlap and duplication. Thompson says while this has been studied before, the committee report ‘‘pulls it together in a way that (is) more comprehensive.''

Seven different federal agencies administer 40 different job-training programs; there are 50 different programs for the homeless; 100 different programs serve at-risk or delinquent youth; 17 departments and agencies operate 515 research and development laboratories. And there's much more. The problem, notes Thompson, is that ‘‘once a program is created, you're never going to get rid of it.''

Every federal agency should be required to come before Congress in each budget cycle and justify the money it receives and spends. No program should be regarded as permanent. The ‘‘Results Act,'' a law designed to improve the performance of various government programs and make them more accountable to the public, is supposed to help in this process, but as Thompson noted, it will only work if the president and Congress live up to its requirements.

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