GSA spending scandal proves need for budget reform

But I’ve always been an optimist, and I couldn’t help but think that, for those of us who advocate for restraint in government spending, this was good news. After all, what makes the case for reining in federal budgets more effectively than a prominent story about hundreds of thousands of dollars of out-and-out government waste?

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That’s why I was disappointed on Tuesday when President Obama lambasted a leading lawmaker’s budget plan at a lunch meeting of reporters and editors in Washington.

Hoping to set the terms of the debate over fiscal priorities for his reelection campaign, the president savaged the budget proposal from Rep. Paul Ryan, the chair of the House Budget Committee. Obama called Ryan’s proposal “radical” because it would reduce federal spending by some $5.3 trillion over 10 years, and he accused the Minnesota Republican of promoting “thinly veiled social Darwinism.”

Those are tough words. Unfortunately, when it comes to responsible budgeting, words are sometimes all we get, which has accelerated the federal spending spree—and shows no sign of stopping. Even worse, the president’s launch of such harsh attacks against a political opponent does not bode well for the possibility of agreement on budget reform in a tough election year.

The tale of the GSA conference debacle, however, offered one counter-argument to the president’s accusations. Clearly, the amount of money at stake in the GSA story is relatively small, at least by federal budget standards. However, it reveals a great deal about the spending culture of federal agencies and their disregard for the taxpayers. Moreover, it puts the burden of proof on those who, like the president, claim that reductions in federal budgets would result in a drastic reduction in services. Clearly, that’s not the case.

Right on the heels of the GSA revelations, a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) showed that although the government’s fiscal performance is improving with the economic recovery, the current budgetary path is still “unsustainable.” This report should be a warning flag to everyone in Washington who believes we can continue spending as we have been and that a stronger economy will take care of the shortfall.

In the context of these developments, Ryan’s budget proposal is worth a closer look. It seems increasingly clear that his plan would address the explosion of federal spending growth more aggressively than any proposals we’ve seen from the president.

To be clear, neither Ryan’s plan nor President Obama’s budget scheme is adequate to the challenge at hand. Neither proposal goes far enough in reining in the rampant growth of entitlement spending.

And while Ryan attempts to address the drastic growth in Medicare spending, his plan ignores cutting the second largest government expenditure: defense spending.  In fact, Ryan’s plan actually increases defense spending. So in the end, both budget proposals move too slowly to address the rapidly encroaching fiscal crisis.

The fact is, neither Democrats nor Republicans in Washington have covered themselves in glory when it comes to responsible budgeting. Over the last 12 years, we’ve seen dramatic shifts in party control of the White House and Congress, but one thing never changes: federal spending climbs ever upward.

Right now, the national debt weighs in at more than $15.5 trillion. Meanwhile, the budget deficit for this year clocks in at a projected $1.2 trillion, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, and future projections show a near-endless progression of budget deficits. Given that hard reality, the president would do well to focus on working with Republicans before critiquing their proposals.

There’s still time for leaders of the two parties to work together to enact real spending restraint -- before the next GSA-style spending scandal pops up, as it inevitably will with a government that is so big. But with the president’s attack on Ryan’s budget and the looming campaign, the window of opportunity is closing fast.

Hamel is executive director of Public Notice, an independent, nonpartisan, non-profit dedicated to providing facts and insight on the economy and how government policy affects Americans’ financial well-being.