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Obama's Economic Waste Campaign Littered With Vagueness

Last week, President Barack Obama issued an executive order beginning a “renewed effort to hunt down misspent tax dollars in every agency and department of this government.” The president announced his so-called “Campaign to Cut Waste” by posting a short video message on YouTube. Vice President Joe Biden will lead the campaign, which will initially consolidate or eliminate some 500 federally maintained websites.

The president’s video message could prove to be the starting point of an important effort to bring government spending to heel, but the message itself lacked specific and meaningful long-term proposals to correct the government’s fiscal imbalance. To be a success, the campaign must go far beyond assessing the value of the government’s websites, and question the value of myriad agencies and programs throughout the government. The president should show that he is serious about “going after every dime” by instructing the vice president to report back to him with a comprehensive list of programs and agencies that can be sensibly eliminated along with their websites.    

Despite the campaign’s lackluster beginning, the president’s statement that “no amount of waste is acceptable” represents an encouraging departure from some of his recent remarks. In a speech at George Washington University in April, Obama diminished the importance of efforts to address the government’s fiscal difficulties by stamping out waste and abuse, maintaining that “politicians are often eager to feed the impression that solving the problem is just a matter of eliminating waste and abuse … The implication is that tackling the deficit issue won’t require tough choices.”   

In fact, true fiscal responsibility requires both a willingness to make difficult choices and a commitment to ensure an honorable management of public money by pledging that none will be wasted. Whether the campaign lives up to this necessarily high standard or focuses more on campaign trail-like platitudes remains to be seen. 

In his video message, the president emphasized the importance of putting an end to more substantial “ridiculous practices” that lead to “pointless waste and stupid spending that doesn’t benefit anybody.” For instance, the federal government holds title to approximately 12,000 buildings and structures, which are currently designated as “excess,” and Obama stressed his intention to cut through red tape to ensure that these buildings are sold. He also announced a plan to curtail the daily printing and shipping of the Federal Register to thousands of government offices since the Federal Register is available online.

The video also specifically targeted several federal websites as a part of the campaign’s initial work – including a website dedicated to the desert tortoise, a page featuring a forest rangers’ folk music group called the Fiddlin’ Foresters, the National Invasive Species Council’s homepage, and another webpage with information about the International Polar Year, which apparently concluded in 2008. In sum, the president asserted that his administration has already identified $33 billion in similarly sensible savings that could be realized just this year.

Make no mistake, unnecessary government websites should be shut down, but such an initiative will yield no more than meager savings. Selling off excess government property makes sense in a general way, but might not be the best immediate plan of action considering the low prices of the still-recovering real estate market. Regardless of the state of the real estate market, revenue from property sales would only provide a one-time boost to the government’s balance sheet, and would do little to solve the government’s long-term fiscal problems.

The campaign has a broad mandate to investigate the federal government’s operations. To truly be meaningful, the campaign must use that mandate to include both a full accounting of what constitutes waste as well as serious, specific proposals to bring about long-term systemic changes that will streamline the government. The campaign needs to ask not just whether the Fiddlin’ Foresters and the National Invasive Species Council need websites, but whether the Fiddlin’ Foresters and the National Invasive Species Council should exist at all. Anything short of arriving at a broad, comprehensive series of recommendations for the elimination of not just websites, but agencies and programs, should be judged as a failure and a missed opportunity.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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