Pelosi silent on money saved by promised crackdown on waste

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who touted House Democratic efforts to crack down on wasteful spending last year, won’t say how much the initiative would save taxpayers.

Last April, the Speaker fired off a letter to each of her chairmen, calling on them to “conduct rigorous oversight of all aspects of federal spending and government operations to help achieve deficit reduction and long-term fiscal responsibility.” She also demanded that each send her a schedule of planned hearings on waste, fraud and abuse.

ADVERTISEMENT
In many ways, it was a simple plan: The chairmen were to develop a list of wasteful federal budget items and target those projects for elimination.

The implementation of the program, however, has been more complicated.

Pressed for details, the Speaker’s office this week declined to specify what recommendations Pelosi received from the various committees; whether every committee submitted a list of proposed budget cuts; how the recommendations she did receive were selected or ignored; and how much in savings was identified.

After contacting spokesmen for various House committees, The Hill received responses to Pelosi’s April 27 letter from the Natural Resources, Homeland Security, Transportation and Infrastructure and Financial Services panels.

The Energy and Commerce, Science and Small Business committees indicated they responded to Pelosi, but that it would be up to her office to release the correspondence.

Some panels did not respond to specific requests for lists they sent to the Speaker — after supplying answers to earlier requests for information relating to the hearings on waste, fraud and abuse they held. These committees included Agriculture, Armed Services, Education and Labor, Foreign Affairs, Judiciary, Veterans’ Affairs and Ways and Means. The Oversight and Government Reform Committee did not reply to any inquiries at all.

“The Speaker, working with committee chairmen and members of the caucus, has made it a top priority to ensure fiscal responsibility,” Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said in a statement. “As a direct result of this effort, the budget passed by Congress last year was below the president’s request. This year, we will continue to root out waste, fraud and abuse.”

Having just received President Barack Obama’s $3.8 trillion budget proposal for fiscal 2011, Congress is only beginning the task of writing its own spending blueprint.

Unlike his first budget, Obama’s 2011 budget — which includes a widespread freeze on non-defense spending — was lambasted by both the left and the right.

Pelosi’s move last year was a clear indication she knows that many voters want the government to rein in spending, especially wasteful use of dollars.

For decades, lawmakers have decried government waste, fraud and abuse, but cutting spending is harder than criticizing it. Part of the problem is that what one lawmaker calls “waste” is deemed vital to another’s district.

In January of last year — months after the 2008 Wall Street bailout was signed into law — Pelosi fast-tracked a bill by one of the founders of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.). The measure implemented a new House rule requiring each standing committee to hold regular hearings on finding “waste, fraud and abuse” within the agencies they oversee.

Keeping the pressure on, the Speaker followed up with the April 27 letter to her committee chairmen.

“As you continue to conduct your oversight investigations, I ask you to develop a specific list of initiatives aimed at reducing costs, ending duplication and promoting efficiency in order to cut the costs of government as aggressively as possible,” the Speaker wrote.

“A vigorous oversight process, with the goal of reducing inefficiency and consolidating operations, is one way for Congress to demonstrate our commitment to fiscal discipline,” she continued. “I would appreciate your providing a list of recommendations to me by June 2, 2009.”

Democratic officials did point to a few cost-cutting proposals that have already been adopted, including the elimination of two programs among the two dozen listed in Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar’s (D-Minn.) June 2 reply to the Speaker.

Oberstar recommended a wide range of initiatives, including a reorganization of the Federal Aviation Administration and an overhaul of the Coast Guard’s acquisition program that he said would save billions. His estimates of the savings from the two programs that have since been scheduled for termination through passage of the Transportation and Housing spending bill total $16 million.

Democratic aides also identified hundreds of billions in cost savings that were later incorporated into the healthcare bill. But that bill is on the ropes, and those savings, if enacted, largely pay for new health benefits for the uninsured.

As Democrats now turn to crafting their own budget resolution, it remains unclear how — or even if — they will incorporate the budget-reducing recommendations many House chairmen offered up.

Asked if the Budget Committee was preparing to turn to the lists put together by the committee chairman, Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra (Calif.) — who is also the Budget panel’s fourth-ranking Democrat — said, “You’d have to ask the chairman of the Budget Committee.”

As he does every year, Budget Chairman John Spratt (D-S.C.) will meet with all of the committee chairmen ahead of writing the House 2011 budget draft, aides said. But at least one aide familiar with the budget process said the various committee “to cut” lists are unlikely to play a dominant role in the formulation of that budget plan.

Becerra, though, said those recommendations could still play a role.

“Because we knew that we were looking at the inheritance of these massive deficits, we knew that we were going to have no choice but to come up with some game-changing ideas to be able to bring some fiscal sanity back to the budgeting process,” he said.

ADVERTISEMENT
And as Obama reiterated Wednesday to the Senate Democratic Conference: “Every dollar counts.”

Asked why House leaders haven’t compiled a comprehensive list of areas to rein in wasteful or duplicative spending, complete with totals of how much could be saved, Becerra said, “I think it’s fair to say that we were looking forward to seeing what the president proposed.”

House Republicans offered their own explanation.

“As Washington Democrats once again try to convince the American people they are serious about fiscal responsibility — while pushing a budget that spends too much, borrows too much and taxes too much — it’s worth remembering what happened the last time the Democratic leadership announced a plan to save taxpayers money: nothing,” House Republican Leader John Boehner (Ohio) said in a statement.

A senior Democratic aide said the committee cost-cutting plan was legitimate, but acknowledged that leaders may be withholding a final tabulation out of fear that it could once again backfire on them politically.

Obama was roundly criticized last April — the very week Pelosi ordered her chairman to write their own cost containment lists — when he told his Cabinet to find $100 million in savings in the $3 trillion-plus budget.