Deficit Reduction Recommendations: A Real Page Turner

Photo (cc) by David Paul Ohmer

You’ve probably seen news stories about the president’s bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform‘s recommendations to reduce the federal deficit by $4 trillion by 2020. (If you haven’t here’s one from CNN Money.) But you really need to look through the commission’s report, especially the draft version. Not because its recommendations will be acted on by Congress – although 60 percent of the commission’s members voted for the changes, that’s not enough for the commission to present its recommendations to Congress for a vote.

The reason you need to peruse the report is to see just how much money our government wastes each and every year. It’s truly mind-boggling, not to mention blood-boiling.

Here’s the actual report (PDF) from the Commission. But as I mentioned above, you should also compare this final report to the draft version (PDF) and see what didn’t make it into the final report. If you can, take an hour and read them both: They’re not written in legalese and are pretty straightforward. But if you don’t have the time, here are a few of many shocking revelations. As you look at these things, remember the situation our nation is in: drowning in debt. Imagine the things you’d cut out of your family’s or business’s budget if you were in the same situation.

For example, if you were in debt trouble, would you be increasing your household budget?

Recommendation 1.10.1 Reduce Congressional and White House budgets by 15 percent. Although the nation’s economy continues to struggle, there’s no recession in Washington. Like most areas of government, the budgets for Congress and the Executive Office of the President have grown significantly in recent years. For example, spending on the legislative branch rose close to 50 percent from FY 2000 through FY 2010. Last year Congress gave itself a nearly four percent budget increase. In order to tackle our impending fiscal crisis, everyone must sacrifice – especially Washington. The Commission’s proposal would reduce the budgets for Congress and the White House by 15 percent. This proposal will save $800 million in 2015.

If your workplace was in debt trouble, how would you feel about management – the same ones who got you into this mess – giving themselves an automatic raise?

Recommendation 1.10.2 Impose a three-year freeze on Member pay. Unlike most Americans, members of Congress benefit from an automatic salary increase every single year – deserved or not. Before Congress can ask the American people to sacrifice, it should lead by example. The Commission recommends an immediate three-year salary freeze for all members of Congress.

If you owed more than you could pay back, would you buy a new car? Would you print stuff when you could share it online for much less?

Recommendation 1.10.5 Reduce federal travel, printing, and vehicle budgets. Despite advances in technology, federal travel costs have ballooned in recent years, growing 56 percent between 2001 and 2006 alone. Government fleets, meanwhile, have grown by 20,000 over the last four years. Printing costs are still higher than necessary despite technological advancement. We propose prohibiting each agency from spending more than 80 percent of its FY 2010 travel budget and requiring them to do more through teleconferencing and telecommuting. We also recommend a 20 percent reduction in the nearly $4 billion annual federal vehicle budget, excluding the Department of Defense and the Postal Service. Additionally, we recommend allowing certain documents to be released in electronic-only form, and capping total government printing expenditures. This proposal will save $1.1 billion in 2015.

If your household really needed to cut back, would you raid the cookie jar for something that just benefited you or your friends?

1.10.7 Eliminate all congressional earmarks. In FY 2010, Congress approved more than 9,000 earmarks costing taxpayers close to $16 billion. Earmarks are not competitively bid and are not subject to accountability metrics, making it difficult to measure effectiveness or conduct cost-benefit analysis. Many of these earmarks are doled out by members of Congress for parochial concerns in their districts and to special interest groups. Examples of parochial earmark spending include $1.9 million for a Pleasure Beach Water Taxi Service in Connecticut, $900,000 for a program encouraging Oklahoma students to role-play how to make tough choices as members of Congress, and $238,000 for ancient-style sailing canoes in Hawaii, among countless others. The Commission recommends the elimination of all congressional appropriations and authorizing earmarks as well as limited tax and tariff benefits. This proposal will save at least $16 billion in 2015

If you were running out of money, would you take more trips?

Recommendation (in the draft, but not the final report) Cut federal travel budget. One of the first things companies cut when faced with budget problems is travel. Yet, despite our record deficits, government expenditures for travel have grown by leaps and bounds. For example, in FY2001, federal agencies spent approximately $9 billion on travel for mission-related business around the world. In FY2006, that figure reached just over $14 billion — an increase of 56 percent.

Some of the recent increases may be due to fluctuations in oil prices and the demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even so, the fact remains that year after year, agencies continue to spend more on travel than they project (both before and after 9/11). Furthermore, the fact that travel spending is rising at such a rapid pace would seem to be counterintuitive, considering that the last decade witnessed remarkable improvements in telecommunications technology (including video conferencing, webcasting, etc.) that should have decreased the need for in-person, face-to-face meetings and on-site visits.

If you’re in debt danger, how do you feel about paying taxes to keep 150,000 soldiers overseas?

Recommendation 51. (Not in the final report) Reduce military personnel stationed at overseas bases in Europe and Asia by one-third. The United States permanently stations about 150,000 military personnel on the hundreds of U.S. bases in Europe and Asia. Reducing this presence by one-third would save around $8.5 billion in 2015 while still maintaining a substantial military force on both continents. The Army has considered reducing its four combat brigades in Europe to two, but presently the budget includes funds for current force levels, likely to result in a reduction of about 33,000 in Europe and another 17,000 in Korea. Since only a minority of the forces in Europe deploy for the Afghan and Iraq wars, the additional forces required to support overseas stationing does not seem cost-effective, and the services have sufficient air and sea assets to deploy forces from the United States. This option would also reduce force levels in Korea as well as reverse the Defense Department’s current plans to build up the infrastructure in Korea to support dependents in support of a new policy to convert the longstanding policy of one year unaccompanied tours to a three-year tour with dependents. Variants of this option were supported in 2009 by both former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Jim Jones.

These things are the tip of the iceberg – read the reports: especially the draft version that contains many recommendations that didn’t make it into the final report. You’ll probably reach the same conclusion I did. Namely, while the needs of the United States are different and vastly more complicated than those of a typical American household, we got into this deficit mess courtesy of a Congress that squanders money that isn’t theirs to waste. And until we get these people under control, as a nation we have nowhere to go but further into debt.

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