I just received a banking alert telling me that my account was overdrawn by $14.87. Since the overdraft fee of $35 has already been deducted, it’s kind of a day late and more than a few bucks short. As with many people facing a household budget deficit, I now need to figure out, line by line, where all my cash is going and what I can eliminate. Face it, it could be worse . . . I could be in the hole for, like $223 billion. Maybe I should just ask Bank of America to raise my bond rating?
Politicians love to compare the United States budget to a household budget, saying if we spent our money like Congress does, we’d be out on the street. I don’t pretend to be an average American, but even I have under my purview dozens of demands, most fluidly changing and many multiplying. The term “budget” is sort of a fiction, anyway. It’s really just a guideline, whether it is the executive budget proposed by the president or a resolution approved by Congress, or my insipid checkbook. And the answer seems so simple: stop spending money that neither the government nor I have, and find out where all the existing money is going.
When you drill down on government spending, the biggest culprits are waste and duplication. Just last week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its first annual report identifying as many duplicate government programs, agencies and offices as it could sniff out. In a none-too-shocking development, the GAO discovered that hundreds of billions of federal dollars are being wasted. Now, admittedly, I throw away food that’s past its prime, and I did recently organize my closet and realize that I have 17 black cardigan sweaters (all different, I swear!), but I’d have to be really absent-minded to find $200 billion floating around in a pocket.
The GAO found waste all over the government, including the Department of Defense. Remember, even if you were to eliminate all non-defense discretionary spending, you still wouldn’t make a dent in the national deficit. The GAO’s finding of five DoD departments, eight DoD agencies and more than 24 DoD presidential appointees all overseeing bioterrorism prevention at a cost of $6.48 billion seem like a drop in the bucket compared to other programs that fly under the radar, literally. Take, for example, the MEADS program, or Medium Extended Air Defense System. MEADS, over the next two years, is going to cost $804 million to develop, and if MEADS is miraculously completed one day, the Pentagon says it won’t buy it because — wait for it — it’s too expensive. Why not use some of that money to improve the already functioning Patriot Missile System, which actually has a chance of shooting missiles down one day?
Other examples of duplicate spending identified by the GAO would be funny if they weren’t funded entirely by our tax dollars. There are five agencies or offices working to ensure that the federal government uses less gas — presumably once high-speed rail transit is in full effect that problem will take care of itself and politicians won’t need to charter private planes. There are 15 federal agencies that handle food safety, costing a total of $1.6 billion, which is way more than it costs me to sniff my milk carton. There are 20 federal offices or programs devoted to homelessness, totaling $2.9 billion. Even using the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s generous 2008 estimate of the size of the U.S. homeless population, there are at most 2.2 million homeless people in the United States in a given year. That means that the government spends about $13,000 a year on every homeless man, woman and child — and that’s not including the cost of food stamps, welfare or subsidized public housing.
So while Senator Harry Reid argues that tax hikes are necessary to fund cowboy poets, and the Senate struggles to find resolution, I am striving to avoid my own shutdown by purging waste, fraud and duplication. I’ll try to fill up my tank a bit less frequently, eat the over-certified food already in my fridge and pare down my own discretionary spending. In a pinch, I’m sure I could find a buyer for some gently worn cardigan sweaters.
Natasha Mayer is a political consultant in Washington, D.C.