As the longest government shutdown in American history drags on, Congress should use the stalemate to address the root causes of the budget dysfunction that led to this point and find a responsible way out.
The partial shutdown occurred in large part because in 2018, Congress extended its more than two-decade streak of failing to pass every appropriations bill before the fiscal year ended on Sept. 30. The last time Congress completed all budget bills individually and on time was 1996, the same year Americans went to see “Independence Day” and “Jerry Maguire” in theaters, danced to the Macarena, and surfed new websites like Ask Jeeves. Every subsequent funding standoff has been a direct result of Congress’s failure to accomplish its most basic responsibility: passing the budget and all individual appropriations bills in a timely manner.
Instead, Congress passes a “mini-bus” spending bill that covers funding for several of the 12 appropriations bills, or one omnibus bill, which covers all 12 appropriations bills. These bills are thousands of pages long and are often put together by a small group of members designated by congressional leadership, and they are brought up for a vote without adequate time for review.
For example, on March 23, 2018, Congress passed a $1.3 trillion omnibus spending package for fiscal year (FY) 2018. Lawmakers had less than 24 hours to review the 2,232-page bill and would have had “to read 195 pages an hour in order to be ready for the vote.” The rushed process provides many opportunities for wasteful spending: The FY 2018 omnibus bill included 232 earmarks costing $14.7 billion, according to the 2018 Congressional Pig Book.
As for the current shutdown fight over border security funding, if $5.7 billion sounds like a relatively small amount in Washington dollars, it is. It represents 0.14 percent of the $4 trillion federal budget.
Finding an alternative way to pay for the $5.7 billion led to a suggestion from Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.). He tweeted on January 15, 2019, that, “Every year the US government pays billions of dollars to people in error. Possible compromise: an amendment allowing recovered money to be spent on border barriers. It wouldn’t appropriate even ONE new dollar.”
Rep. Meadows is referring to one of the most critical and underreported issues facing taxpayers today: improper payments. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the federal government made a staggering $141 billion in improper payments in FY 2017. That is more than the currently shuttered Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Homeland Security, Interior, and Transportation combined. GAO also found that several agencies do not have sufficient procedures to track whether payments are valid or bogus, meaning that the $141 billion is likely a conservative estimate.
There is a lot of other wasteful spending in Washington that could be eliminated and redirected into higher priorities, or simply used to reduce the deficit. GAO has issued reports on duplication, fragmentation, and overlap every year since 2011. Implementation of some of those recommendations to date has saved an estimated $178 billion, and full implementation can save tens of billions more. Citizens Against Government Waste has compiled a compendium of 636 recommendations for cutting $429.8 billion in one year and $3.1 trillion over five years in its 2018 Prime Cuts database, including the elimination of corporate welfare subsidies for sugar, dairy, and peanuts; halting add-ons for the boondoggle known as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; and, grounding taxpayer support for airports that subsidize largely empty flights.
Fundamentally, every taxpayer dollar should be treated as sacred, regardless of the political battles of the moment. Whether it is border security, infrastructure, or any other program, the sole approach should be to solve the problem in the most practical, measurable, and cost-effective way possible.
Lawmakers should find a silver lining in the shutdown and use it as an opportunity to reform the budget process, save the taxpayers’ money, and get the nation’s fiscal house in order.
Tom Schatz is the president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonprofit group working to cut waste in government.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.