Political Hay

CARFA ‘04, Where Are You?

There is no better time than the coming election year for conservatives to insist on sane domestic spending.

By 12.23.03

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Right now, the policy wonks and campaign strategists of both parties are on a safari of sorts, hoping to bag the next big idea that captures the interest of the voters next year.

The Bush administration is attempting to find some national goals that can lead to a "Kennedy moment." Some would carry a price tag. Pollster Stanley Greenberg, a liberal Democrat, has just had a book published that presents his view of an effective campaign strategy for the Democrats. Not surprisingly, the programs that comprise the "winning" agenda for his party, if enacted, will cost taxpayers plenty.

Not all good ideas come in big-budget packages, and there's one idea out there that can actually save taxpayers money and lots of it. Americans, and our leaders, cannot afford to forget that our nation is running a deficit estimated to reach $500 billion in this fiscal year.

Furthermore, our nation has already run up a debt of nearly $7 trillion. That breaks down to well over $20,000 per citizen.

There is plenty of blame to go around about our federal government's return to running up deficits. Past and present Congresses and administrations all have done their part.

Clearly, the 9/11 attack required our country to reassess our priorities.

However, the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, in assessing the spending record of the 107th Congress (2001-2002), discovered that no Member of Congress actually had a voting record that truly favored lower federal spending. Analyzing all the legislation considered by Congress in that session, NTUF also found 85% of the actual and potential discretionary increases in spending had no connection to post 9/11 anti-terrorism efforts.

Indeed, there were 20 amendments to reduce spending that had been introduced in the House during that session. What percentage passed? If you guessed zero, you win the prize.

Our elected leaders have an addiction to overspending, and it is up to the grassroots to help them overcome it.

For conservatives, with our belief in limited government, this is not just an idea we should think about advocating. It is intrinsic to who we are and the principles that we represent.

There can be no buck passing on the issue of restraining federal spending. No more than you would want to saddle your family with huge debts should our country and its elected leaders run up huge bills that are left to our next generation to pay.

What we really need is someone to have the guts to advance a proposal that can pull our nation back from the brink of bankruptcy. Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Rep. Todd Tihart (R-KS) have come up with one good idea that can help to do just that. The idea is called Commission On Accountability and Review of Federal Agencies (CARFA), S. 1668 / H.R. 3213, and it is based on the successful effort that reduced the number of our military bases at the end of the Cold War.

Many communities throughout our country were reluctant to lose their military bases, even though they were no longer needed in peacetime. Our government could not afford to subsidize their continued operation, but it was quite unlikely that Congress had the will to make the difficult choices. Instead, the President appointed a bipartisan Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC). They were able to assess the situation and identify those bases that could be closed. They issued their recommendations in reports, and then Congress voted up-or-down on the recommendations.

The BRAC system worked. Four rounds of base closures and realignments are estimated to have saved U.S. taxpayers over $16 billion through 1991. Nearly 100 bases could be closed.

The same principles can apply to discretionary domestic spending. In 2001, there were 342 economic development programs, 130 programs serving the disabled, 50 homeless assistance programs, and 27 teen pregnancy programs. Even if you believe that the Federal Government has business in these areas, the fact is that the money showered on these programs can be spent more efficiently and economically and to greater effectiveness by consolidating their number and developing a well-thought out strategy to attack the problems they seek to cure.

By no means will CARFA cure all our country's fiscal ailments, namely the mounting cost of entitlement programs. But discretionary spending has been increasing. It all adds up, and it is sticking our country's next generation with huge bills that they will be forced to pay.

There is no better time than the coming year for conservatives to raise the idea of CARFA. Voters will want to hear new ideas from candidates. Innumerable conservative citizens have told me that runaway federal spending dismays them. They expect better of conservatives who have been trusted to come to Washington as elected leaders. They are waiting to hear about ideas such as CARFA. More than that, they want real action to get a grip on overspending.

CARFA has the potential for a much greater impact than the dollars and cents savings. By pointing out the wasteful and duplicative spending, the Commission can bring about a climate in which greater scrutiny and thought is given to the programs on which Congress and administrations intend to spend taxpayer money.

Our national debt and runaway federal spending clearly indicate that CARFA is an idea whose time has come. It can help our elected leaders come to grips with their overspending problem. Our nation can become unified behind an effort to bring about greater fiscal accountability -- one that is done fairly and with the best interest of the American people in mind.

It's the trophy politicians can display on the wall of next election campaign. It's not just good politics; it's adhering to conservative principles.

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About the Author

Paul M. Weyrich is chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.