WASHINGTON — Sen. Tom Coburn said President Obama “deserves credit” for including a government-waste reduction item in his budget. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy said Coburn’s annual booklet on unnecessary federal programs is “terrific.”
The two lawmakers share little in common. Coburn is an Oklahoma Republican, McCarthy a New York Democrat. Yet they stood united behind two goals at a congressional hearing Thursday: Government bloat is a problem and steps to reduce it are desirable.
They were joined by a dozen lawmakers from both parties who attended a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Although nearly all followed the congressional custom of flitting in and out of the hearing, their ranks included two senators who made a rare appearance on the other side of the Capitol.
The hearing was a significant accomplishment for fiscal hawks. Until they rose to power in 2010 buoyed by the Tea Party movement, neither political party had seriously considered rooting out government rot to be a priority. As Thomas A. Scatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, noted in his written testimony, the last time Washington paid sustained attention occurred under President Reagan, who created the President’s Private Sector Survey on Cost Control in the Federal Government, known as the Grace Commission (1982-84).
The commission discovered that the Defense Department bought $800 toilet seats and $400 hammers. Although the recent movement to attack bloat cannot hang any similar trophies on its wall, it can boast of having captured lesser-known quarry.
A 2010 law has reduced the amount of improper federal payments from $121 billion that year to $106 billion last year, according to an October 2013 report from Congressional Research Service. The Department of Homeland Security last year passed for the first time a financial audit. The Department of Education can account for all of its programs, according to Coburn.
Yet lawmakers agreed that more steps are needed.
“We need to go from a culture of spendthrift to a culture of thrift,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said Thursday.
Sitting to his left at the hearing was Coburn. His book detailed 100 federal wasteful and duplicative federal programs that have cost taxpayers $30 billion. Among those was $20 million to promote Connect for Health Colorado, the state’s health insurance exchange.
Strategies to create a culture of thrift were more elusive than examples of government boondoggles.
“The problem is not that we don’t know what the problem is. The problem is we don’t do anything about it,” Coburn said.
For example, a partisan split emerged on which federal programs should be cut or eliminated. For Republicans, domestic programs are the chief enemy.
“The first thing for us to do is consolidate 679 renewable energy programs into two or three,” Coburn said. He and Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) have sponsored legislation that would require the Congressional Research Service to examine a bill that creates a federal program or office to see if it exists already.
For Democrats, defense programs are the main bugaboo.
“One agency that comes up repeatedly every single year in virtually every single report is the Department of Defense. This makes sense because it is the largest federal agency with the biggest budget,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said in a statement.
Yet lawmakers vowed to press ahead on removing government decay. Committee chairman Issa promised Carper his committee would not only schedule a vote on a good-government piece of legislation he or Coburn had sponsored, but also to hold one. Issa’s promise was met with murmurs of assent from Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike.