Washington lacks courage to make tough decisions

Regardless of the outcome of the elections, members of Congress will return in November under enormous pressure to “turn off” automatic spending cuts and tax increases that are set to take effect at the beginning of next year. Members on both sides are pointing to a Congressional Budget Office study that says going over this fiscal cliff will plunge us into a recession. The CBO, however, only got it half right. It is tax increases, not spending cuts, that are a threat to our economy.

The CBO study, as is often the case, is the product of the garbage in, garbage out phenomenon in Washington. Just as CBO’s report on ObamaCare, with its phony accounting gimmicks written into law, generated phony savings, CBO’s report on the fiscal cliff is sending false signals. With respect to the fiscal cliff, the “garbage in” is the Budget Control Act (BCA) that set up automatic, across-the-board spending cuts rather than specific, targeted cuts. 

ADVERTISEMENT
I voted against the BCA because across-the-board spending cuts are, frankly, a stupid way to budget. The cuts, also known as sequestration, absolve politicians of the responsibility of leading and making real decisions. Sequestration protects wasteful programs while cutting useful programs. It’s mowing the flowers beds instead of pulling the weeds. 

Instead of “turning off” sequestration, Congress should do the hard work of replacing arbitrary across-the-board cuts with specific reductions of an equal amount, beginning with $109 billion next year. In our nearly $4 trillion budget, this amount comes out to just under three cents on the dollar. Families and businesses across America have cut back much more in this economy. It is unreasonable for Congress to complain about doing the same. 

Those who say that common-sense restraint will hurt growth ignore the fact that our total budget is more than twice the size that it was 11 years ago and 25 percent larger than when President Obama took office. If more spending were the key to growth, we’d be in the midst of a boom. We’re not. 

 Plus, we are already seeing that our debt itself, which is 103 percent of gross domestic product, is slowing our economy, just as leading economists have predicted.

Finding areas of savings should not be difficult. Today’s federal budget is littered with economic superfund sites — cesspools of waste, duplication, cronyism and parochialism. Cleaning up these sites will heal, rather hurt, our economy. 

I’ve detailed how Congress can find $9 trillion in savings over 10 years in a 620-page “Back in Black” report that touches on every area of the federal budget, from defense spending to the tax code. This effort in large part consolidated information Congress already knows but continues to ignore. For instance, for the past two years the Government Accountability Office has shown Congress more than $200 billion in duplicative spending alone. 

In his first debate with the president, Mitt Romney mentioned just one item highlighted by the GAO — 47 job-training programs across nine agencies that cost $18 billion but are not producing results. GAO found dozens of other areas of costly duplication that if streamlined could improve outcomes while saving money. For example, GAO has identified 209 federal Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs run by 13 federal agencies, costing taxpayers more than $3 billion annually. These so-called investments haven’t improved outcomes over 40 years, yet politicians are promising more of the same. GAO also found 15 financial literacy programs across 13 federal agencies, costing taxpayers more than $30 million annually. Congress is hardly in a position to lecture anyone about financial literacy.

 Duplication is only part of the problem. Our budget is full of outrageous examples of waste and mismanagement. For instance, our government has borrowed $20 million from future generations in order to send millionaires unemployment checks. Funds meant to help agencies coordinate intelligence and counterterrorism efforts at Department of Homeland Security “fusion centers” have been spent on flat-screen TVs, SUVs for personal use and intelligence that has been described as useless and irrelevant. I recently released my annual “Wastebook” report that will chronicle additional billions in waste ranging from robotic squirrels to caviar subsidies to tax breaks for the NFL, among many other items.

What Washington is lacking is not options for savings but the political courage necessary to make specific decisions. Millions of families and individuals in America are already living in the world of hard decisions and priorities. It’s long past time for Washington politicians to join them. 

Coburn is a member of the Senate Finance Committee.