The Public Policy

A Drop Here, A Drop There

Amazing how a drop in the budgetary bucket is soon worth millions and billions.

By 4.29.11

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Suggest that getting rid of waste in a particular government program would result in a savings of X millions of dollars and the typical Washington green eyeshade type (or Democrat lawmaker, if it doesn't fit his agenda) will scoff that it's but "a drop in the bucket" --hardly worth fooling with. They forget the late Senator Everett Dirksen's dictum, "A billion here, a billion there and pretty soon you're talking about real money."

The latest case involves the revelation that the Internal Revenue Service paid out half-a-billion dollars to first-time home buyers who weren't. You'll recall that this was part of the Obama 2009 "economic recovery" program, designed to jump-start home sales. First-time buyers would get credits of up to $8,000. Congress sweetened the pot by giving $6,500 to current owners who traded up to a new home.

The IRS's inspector general recently reported finding that some credits went to prison inmates, to people who did not buy homes and others who bought before the credit program became law. In all, the IRS paid our $29 billion to more than four million people. To its credit, it denied the claims of more than 400,000. That the program did not make an appreciable difference in the housing market is not, of course, the fault of the IRS, but of incorrect policy planning of the Obama Administration and its Congressional allies. Nevertheless, tighter vetting of claims could have saved several bucketsful of taxpayer funds.

Another periodic example of drops in the bucket that add up to bucketsful are the reports of credit card abuse by government employees. The green eyeshade wearers tired of poring over expense claims for travel, so came up with the idea of distributing credit cards, then auditing their usage afterward. Not all, but some of users succumbed to temptation and ran up charges for theater tickets, clothing, personal travel, spa treatments, and expensive meals. This is the sort of outcome most folks out in Taxpayer Land would have predicted, had they been asked. The solution (and the saving of many "drops"): pre-approval of expense requests.

A source of a steady flood of drops into the bucket stopped in January: It is the lavish use of an Air Force 737 to transport then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi from Washington to her home in San Francisco and back.

Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act request that resulted in a detailed Air Force accounting of her use of an aircraft over a 16-month period in 2009 and 2010. Ninety-five percent of the her trips were commutes from home to work. Total mileage: 206,264, an average of 2,427 per trip. The passenger list often included her adult children, grandchildren, in-laws, friends and family retainers. The cost of in-flight food and alcohol was $62,051 a year, more than the average American makes in that time. 

As for today's Speaker, John Boehner, he flies commercial.

The drop-in-the-bucket theory is not restricted to Washington. In California, it was recently announced that the state would no longer lease hang-the-expense automobiles for legislators, nor would they any longer have unrestricted use of gasoline credit cards. It was if the sky had fallen. 

With California still facing a deficit of about $13 billion, it doesn't seem like a lot to ask the legislators to set an example by driving their own automobiles and be reimbursed for legitimate business travel. Alas, no, this was too big a sacrifice. After all, cutting out this perquisite would provide only a drop in the bucket toward reducing that deficit. Better to raise taxes, they said.

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About the Author
Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. He is a member of the board of the Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats.”