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How to end the mess in Washington.

"Left to its own devices, Congress will balance the budget on the backs of taxpayers while creating more and more entitlements and regulations."

THE NATIONAL DEBT reached three trillion dollars in March, 1990. While it took the entire history of the U.S.--more than two centuries--for the debt to reach that amount, within two years it had swelled to four trillion dollars, soaring to that dizzying height in 1992.

A rocket shimmers as it leaves the ground and then starts to streak into the sky so fast that it is impossible to follow with the naked eye. Well, that is the country's national debt. It is well past the shimmering stage and is streaking out of sight. Americans have every right to be frightened and angry about this. The debt is not an abstraction--it is real. However, our politicians have been dealing with big numbers for so long that they seem to have forgotten. It is nothing for them routinely to round off figures to the nearest million or billion dollars.

I know this from personal experience. I once was assistant secretary for international organizations at the State Department. My office dealt with the US. contribution to the United Nations and, as this amounted to something less than 1,000,000,000 a year, it was regarded as a drop in the bucket. We did not even register on the radar screen of serious government.

Nonetheless, the higher-ups tried to make it easy, so, by the time budget and accounting memos got to us, thousands of dollars and very often tens of thousands of dollars would have disappeared from sight in the rounding-off process.

This is the rule for virtually all Federal agencies and departments. Collectively, they deal every day in hundreds of billions of dollars. So, they are not rounding off just thousands and tens of thousands, but tens of billions of dollars. The people in individual offices making budget decisions never see the missing figures and, in truth, never think about them much.

In this context, it becomes very easy to forget that a "hundred" in the memo one is reading represents 100,000,000. Why, that's not even 1,000,000,000, you might say once you had been in Washington awhile. You get into that habit, one that reveals a great deal about the transformation that takes place when an individual spends a lot of time working in and around the Federal government.

Most voters think, "Ah, if only we could send really good people to Washington, they won't develop those habits. And then, finally, we'll have good government." It is true that sending good people to Washington is essential to good government. I do not for one moment want to minimize the importance of this. Yet, neither good people nor good government are enough. We send good people to Washington all the time, and they hail from every state in the Union. They are competent, successful individuals loaded with integrity, courage, and common sense (at least before they get to the nation's capital). We even have had "good government" as defined by those in government. Why, then, is Washington such a mess?

One obvious reason is the sheer size of the Federal budget. In January, 1992, Pres. Bush unveiled his proposed budget for the 1993 fiscal year. As the Wall Street Journal noted, the Democrats in Congress pronounced it "dead on arrival." It was just too low. What was low to them? The total (rounded, of course, to the nearest $100, 000,000) was one trillion, five hundred sixteen billion, seven hundred million dollars. That is more than 25% of the nation's Gross National Product.

What about off-budget entitlements, the monies the Federal government already is committed to spend, but the public never hears about? These amount to four-six trillion dollars in civil and military pensions, Social Security payments, and other unfunded liabilities.

Government regulation is another kind of hidden expenditure that never shows up in any proposed budget. The National Chamber Foundation reported in mid 1992 that regulatory costs passed along to the consumer in the form of higher prices total 400,000,000,000 each year, or an average of $4,000 per household.

As if that weren't enough, direct taxation, added to Social Security payroll deductions for employers and employees, now is a staggering 52-60% of the GNP. These figures virtually were ensured in 1990 when Bush retreated from his personal tax pledge and cooperated with Congress to pass a so-called "deficit reduction package." The price was $200,000,000,000 (to date) in new tax increases. The outraged American public was assured that these would be devoted solely to reducing the deficit and that there would be significant spending cuts at all levels.

Nevertheless, Congress slid out from under the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction law and ever since has been producing the largest deficits in American history: $280,000,000,000 in 1991 and $400,000, 000,000 in 1992.

One of the interesting sidebars to this story involves the "luxury tax," which was a minor part of the deficit reduction package. This new levy ended up literally crippling the boat-building industry. It also led to massive layoffs, putting more than 30,000 workers on the unemployment rolls, and adversely affected dozens of other related industries. Ironically, the luxury tax proved to cost more money than it raised in revenues. It should serve as a reminder that the power to tax is the power to destroy.

Then there is the huge problem of government waste. In 1990, the Comptroller General of the General Accounting Office estimated that the Federal government wastes $180,000,000,000 annually. At the time, this was enough to fund the budgets of 48 of the 50 states. Since the GAO just watches what Congress tells it to, we only can imagine the waste that goes unreported.

Here is one example uncovered by Citizens Against Government Waste. The U.S. Navy regularly sinks old ships in its artificial-reef-and-sink program. Thousands of items are left op board, from mattresses, pots, and pans to heavy equipment and machinery. A Congressman wrote to the Navy Department sensibly pointing out that these could be salvaged. The Navy replied loftily that the $57,000,000 involved didn't justify the effort. What amount would--$100,000,000?

Apparently not at the Defense Department's Logistics Agency, which spent 250,000,000 putting in an elaborate computer system that was supposed to help it keep track of its purchases and prevent it from acquiring unneeded inventory. However, according to a GAO survey, it ultimately purchased $3,500,000,000 in unneeded inventory anyway, including a 33-year supply of size 12 women's blouses. The Defense Department couldn't have begun to use up that amount of blouses even if all of the service personnel sent to the Persian Gulf had been women who wore size 12.

It's our money being wasted

This kind of story seems pretty funny until you consider whose money is going to waste. I was doing a radio interview in 1992 when a listener called in to complain about the savings and loan scandal. He went on for five minutes about what an awful travesty it was. Every now and again, I would mutter encouragingly so that he would realize that I was a receptive audience. Finally, he concluded by saying that the one thing he really didn't understand was why we, the American taxpayers, have to foot the bill. Why don't we just let government do it?"

It's our money, whether it is tens of billions that will be spent on bailing out S&Ls, $57,000,000 wasted by the Navy, or $3,500,000,000 in unneeded Defense Department inventory. We--and those people we keep sending to Washington--have made the same mistake as the radio caller. Time and again, we have been content to "let the government do it."

Think about what our money is. It is our children's education. It is the roof over our heads. It is the ability to think ahead to years into the future, to plan what we might do, for ourselves, our children, our community, and our nation. It allows us to feel both the burden and the privilege of responsibility. It is the basis of our ability to translate our will, choices, and values into action. In a real sense, it is the foundation of self-government and a free society. The more our money is removed from our control, the less responsibility we exercise and the less freedom we enjoy.

It is not that we send bad people to Washington who are doing bad things. There are some who are abusing their positions, but most are simply using them in ways that come perfectly naturally. We put them in a system where success depends not upon results produced, but upon how much money is controlled and how many people are commanded, so we shouldn't be surprised that their greatest interest in life is controlling more money and commanding more people.

Nor should we be surprised that they help maintain the very network of political and bureaucratic patronage they were elected to fight. They try their hardest not to roll back big government, but to "make it work. " In short, our Congressmen and senators no longer are our representatives; they are sales agents for "good government"--i.e., government with ever-expanding power over the lives of you and me and our children.

The disjunction of interest between us and the people we send to Washington doesn't arise because of one particular circumstance. It has become endemic to the system. Even if all the problems outlined above were solved, we still can not elect good people, send them to Washington, and expect them to do good things for us.

America's Founders warned as much. At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, annual elections were considered seriously as one possible method of keeping a tight rein on the nation's representatives and, at the time, most states handled their own elections this way. The attitude was: "We must keep a constant and watchful eye on our representatives and curb the worst excesses of government." It was not: "Once we elect worthy public servants, we will trust them to do good things with government."

The Founders knew that, worthy public servants aside, government by nature tends toward excess. It is a necessary evil to provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and do those things, as Abraham Lincoln later said, that can not be done by individuals and enterprises singly. There may be times when we have to use this instrument, just as doctors once were wont to include small amounts of arsenic in their prescriptions, but massive doses can be fatal.

Whatever our good impulses as a people may be, they are incapable of controlling the fundamental tendency of government toward excess and abuse. Contrary to what another president, Jimmy Carter, promised, we never shall have a government that is as good as its people, and we never should wish for one.

What is self-government about, after all? What is American society about? They certainly are not about creating a utopia through the instrument of the state. Even if government could produce all that it promises, who would want those results on the terms they are offered? They are terms that require surrendering a good more important than good results--the freedom to make choices. We still should have enough pride in ourselves as individuals and a people to want to shape our own destiny.

As citizens empowered to govern ourselves, we also should be willing to reassert our role on a community level. When Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about America in the 1830s, he tried to explain what he thought was responsible for its astounding success. One of the key factors he pointed to was the vitality and primacy of government at the local level. This is the intersection between private enterprise and government power--where the latter remains to some degree answerable to the former. At the state and Federal levels, the primary interest of government is government. The people become merely the servants of its appetites.

We must return as much power as possible to individuals and local government. For starters, we need term limitations and a properly worded and conceived balanced budget amendment. (It is not enough to tell Congress that it must balance the budget. Left to its own devices, it will do so on the backs of the taxpayers and/or by creating more and more off-budget entitlements and regulations.)

We citizens have to become our own watchdogs again. We need taxpayer commissions to give critical scrutiny to the reports of government watchdog agencies like the GAO and to do some investigating of their own. (Currently, we are spending millions of dollars on reports that tell us how the government is wasting our money when those reports themselves are a primary example of waste because nothing is done about them, or because they deliberately are slanted to please the agencies and departments they are evaluating.)

We also have to hold government accountable for spending our money. Politicians and bureaucrats talk a lot about "government resources," but those resources are ours. Like greedy guests sponging off their host in a swank restaurant, they are reading off a menu with no prices when they plan new budgets and new programs. However, we are the host. We foot the bill. We need to insist on seeing all the prices up front.

Revitalizing local government, term limitation, taxpayer commissions, fiscal accountability--these are practical and realizable goals. Yet, there is nothing that can be done to reform the system that will substitute for the grass-roots mobilization of people around the country. Our government is "of the people, by the people, and for the people," and we must not let it perish.
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Author:Keyes, Alan
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:May 1, 1993
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