Cut with a machete

What triggers behavioral change?

The price of a gallon of gas has a greater psychological impact on Americans than pretty much any other item on which we spend our hard-earned money. Unlike increased cost of clothing, electronics or even food, we are reminded constantly of rising gas prices. Each and every day most Americans drive by several gas stations and see those ever-changing numbers as they rise or fall, whether we are filling our tanks that day or not. It’s a daily grading of our economy, and of the job performance of a president.

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We casually monitor and note that while yesterday regular gas was $3.38 per gallon, today it is up to $3.50. Or perhaps we even notice it’s gone up since just the morning commute. But then we see something that really jolts us. $4 per gallon. That hits us. $3.99 per gallon — not so much. But $4 per gallon becomes a wake-up call and triggers a measurable change in our behavior.

We walk instead of drive. We plan our errands and outings fastidiously in order to consolidate and use less gas. We take vacations that are nearby or forgo them altogether. Teenagers are prohibited from driving the family car “just for fun,” as so many in my generation suffered through during the Jimmy Carter years. (For that, I may never forgive him.)

$4 per gallon. That’s the price point where we start to appreciate the beauty of an inert automobile. It’s also the point where we start looking askance at a seemingly inert president who may be a bit out of touch with what’s going on with the rest of us on a day-to-day basis. It’s when we start throwing around words like ANWR and offshore drilling in everyday conversations, and we begin to point fingers at a president who seems more concerned with his ideological political base than our travails at the gas pump. $4 serves as a trigger.

Another number popped up this week that should also serve as a trigger for voter concern. $100 billion. Or — to make the point, let’s take a gander at the scary number of zeros — $100,000,000,000. That’s the amount of federal money a new GAO study tells us is wasted annually. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) requested the study, and the results are shocking. 

What will it take to trigger Washington’s behavioral changes in response to $100 billion in waste and redundancy the way $4-per-gallon gas can trigger behavioral changes in average Americans? Congressional Republicans are gaining a degree of clarity about all of those zeros, but the sense of alarm with Democrats appears to be AWOL. It’s difficult to take seriously their doomsday histrionics about how budget cuts will destroy the country now that we know that literally hundreds of billions of dollars can be saved over a few years by cutting waste, fraud and redundancy. It takes some of the roar out of Democrats’ rants that the sky is falling if Republican budget cuts are adopted.

After the GOP won the congressional majority in the 1990s, then-Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), chairman of the subcommittee on Oversight for the House Education and the Workforce Committee (I was communications director for the full committee) launched an investigation into wasteful and duplicative education programs within the Department of Education and those strewn throughout the entire federal government. We discovered upwards of 750 federal education programs, and very few actually were teaching kids the basics they needed in life. Gems such as closed-captioning for “Baywatch” (because as we know, viewers tuned in for the scintillating dialogue), lessons on how to put on a condom for teenagers as part of the “Safe and Drug Free Schools” program, and five-feet-tall plastic toothbrushes in the same program, for which to this day I can’t find a decent explanation, were among the wasteful ridiculousness eating up funds.

The GAO study needs to trigger massive behavioral changes in Washington. With 13 budget bills coming out of the committees, each committee should perform the same type of oversight as Hoekstra in the 1990s, pull out their machetes and get to work. Otherwise, there’s another number looming that may trigger a very dramatic behavior on the part of voters — 11/6/2012.

Jacobus, president of Capitol Strategies PR, has managed congressional campaigns, worked on Capitol Hill and is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. She appears on CNN, MSNBC and FOX News as a GOP strategist.

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