Congress works to turn watchdog into lapdog 

Has somebody dumped gallons of hallucinogens into the drinking water on Capitol Hill? How else can we explain why Congress is slashing the operational budget of its most effective weapon against wasteful federal spending? That weapon, of course, is the Government Accountability Office, the green-eyeshade agency that for decades has been the bane of every wasteful bureaucrat in Washington.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is also mystified, pointing out in a report this week, “Just this year, GAO identified hundreds of billions of dollars of duplicative and overlapping programs that, if addressed by Congress, could both save money and improve services for taxpayers. For every $1 spent on GAO, the agency provides $90 in savings recommendations. Yet, instead of adopting these good government reforms, the Senate Appropriations Committee has responded by proposing dramatic budget cuts to the GAO budget.”

Did you catch that ratio of potential savings identified by the GAO to the cost of running the GAO? If every government agency could provide $90 in real economic value for every $1 in operational costs, this nation would have a $15 trillion surplus rather than a $15 trillion national debt. What’s even more shocking is that the cuts are not being proposed just by the Democrat-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee, and they’re not a one-time thing.

As Coburn points out in his report, the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee has proposed a 6.4 percent reduction, only a little less than the 7.6 percent sought by the Senate panel. And the effort to cut the GAO has been going on for two decades: The GAO’s workforce has been reduced by 40 percent — or more than 2,000 positions — since 1992, and during the same period, the agency’s budget has been reduced 13 percent (in inflation-adjusted dollars). So Democrats and Republicans in Congress have been colluding for decades in this obvious effort to reduce Washington’s best watchdog to a congressional lapdog.

And what else — besides spending America deeper into debt than it has ever before been — has Congress been doing during this period? Well, it’s been fattening its staff even as it does less and less work. The Coburn report includes these revealing facts:

  • Between 2000 and 2010, Congress increased its own budget from a combined $1.2 billion to $2.3 billion, rising nearly twice as fast as inflation.
  • During the same period, House staff grew by 9 percent and Senate staff increased by 24 percent.
  • Over the last 30 years, the number of congressional oversight hearings held each session decreased by about one-quarter from 4,000 to less than 3,000.
  • The Senate spent more than200 hours in “quorum calls” — a parliamentary “timeout” — during 2009, and more than one-third of its time in 2011.
  • Ninety-six percent of all legislation passed without a roll-call vote in the 111th Congress — the highest percentage of any session in the last 15 years.

And then these people wonder why their public approval rating as an institution has sunk to 13 percent? Does anyone now doubt that a congressional term-limit constitutional amendment would be adopted by more than three quarters of the states in record time?

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