By ANGELA CANTERBURY
There’s nothing like the holiday season to finally bring partisans together…in their mutual desire to get the heck out of Washington. At midnight last night a spending bill compromise was struck between Democrats and Republicans that would yet again avert a government shutdown today. The threat of a shutdown has been looming nearly all year—there have been two punts on a new spending bill for 2012 since the fiscal year began on October 1. Each time, pundits posited: would there be a government shutdown? This week, federal workers got another notice of procedures for furloughs for the moment when Congress officially fails to fund the government.
But while the brinkmanship may be effective for cutting deals with foes across the aisle, it’s got to be hurting these elected officials back home. Maybe the politicos are banking on hero status once congressional leaders save the day they put in peril in the first place? I’m not buying it. I would guess the endless partisan games are a big part of why Americans continue to steadily lose confidence in Congress.
Inside the beltway, there wasn’t nearly the buzz there was when the last shutdown guidance arrived in April. Ho hum? Perhaps the shutdown showdown has become like the terrorist threat level that stayed at orange (high) for so long that it became the new normal.
That said, today it appears there may be some presents under the tree for some taxpayers. But accountability mostly got coal. In the omnibus appropriations bill, there is a modest, but welcome increase to $18.97 million from the paltry $17.9 million the House had originally passed for the Office of Special Counsel. However, this agency charged with protecting whistleblowers who warn of waste, fraud, and abuse—an agency that can actually save taxpayer dollars—is still severely underfunded. Likewise, Nextgov reports that the e-government fund got a slight raise over the Senate-passed level of $6 million to about $12.4 million, but this is still a huge slash from the 2011 budget of $34 million. Another failure to invest in accountability is the reduction of 6.4 percent in the Government Accountability Office (GAO) budget, which means there will be layoffs. POGO and several senators had urged appropriators not to cut funding for the GAO, which returns dividends on its budget.
There also isn’t a whole lot for POGO to applaud when it comes to reining in wasteful spending in our defense and national security budgets. Yesterday, the Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), sending the legislation to fund the Pentagon and national security programs to the President’s desk. The good news is that this was $27 billion less than requested by the President. The bad news is that most of the major pork was not cut, such as the military’s new long-range bomber, and wasteful missile defense and space programs. Politico also reports that in the appropriations bill under consideration today, the “Pentagon still ekes out a $5.1 billion increase, bringing its budget to $518.1 billion for 2012.” Our friends at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation point out that while the omnibus spending on nuclear weapons is 4.7 percent less than what was requested, it is still 4.9 more than the FY 2011 budget.
Inexplicably, though nearly identical language was in BOTH the House and the Senate-passed bills, the conference committee scrapped a provision that would improve military whistleblowers’ access to courts. It is hard to understand how a handful of members can decide to toss out a measure approved by the majority of Congress. There needs to be more accountability in the conference rules.
All that said, there are some things we liked about the defense budget bill.
We are pleased that the conferees accepted some of the language introduced by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) to add a public interest balancing test to the new exemption to the Freedom of Information Act for the Department of Defense (DoD) to withhold some information relating to critical infrastructure security. It is certainly not as strong as the language adopted by the House, which would have further narrowed the applicability of the exemption. Hopefully it will make it more difficult for the Pentagon to justify withholding records in cases like the Camp Lejeune water contamination cover-up.
Congress did save taxpayers $100 million by not fully funding the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) at Los Alamos National Laboratory. There are serious questions about this facility, not the least of which is that it will enable storage of six metric tons of plutonium in an active seismic zone. We’ve been calling for an end to the unnecessary program, but saving taxpayers $100 million here is a step in the right direction. In addition, funding for construction of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, which makes extremely volatile nuclear fuel that no one will buy, was cut by $176 million. Again, POGO has called for a halt to this construction project, but welcomes the funding cut.
The bill also requires an independent study on the military’s overseas basing presence, which POGO has supported. It simply isn’t necessary for the military to have more than 100,000 troops stationed overseas (not including troops in Iraq and Afghanistan), and we believe this study will be a way to determine objectively which bases can be closed and which troops can be brought home.
The conference bill also provides for increased oversight and accountability of the Department of Defense’s largest weapons procurement ever—the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Most importantly, Lockheed Martin, the primary contractor on the F-35, will be responsible for paying 100 percent of the cost over-runs beyond a fixed price set for future low-rate initial production contracts.
The conferees did expand the cap on executive pay to all defense contractor employees (with some exceptions), though taxpayers will still pay many contractors much more than the President is paid. A proposal by Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Representative Paul Tonko (D-NY), which POGO supports, would reduce the cap on all contractor pay from the current—and ever-increasing—figure of $693,951 to the salary earned by Cabinet secretaries (currently just below $200,000). Unfortunately, that measure is not included in the NDAA.
For years, POGO has fought to reduce the federal government's share of reimbursement for contractor executive compensation. Although the final provision has its flaws (the cap is only for defense contractors, it remains too high—and will only get higher, and the exceptions are ripe for abuse), Congress took a step in the right direction, and taxpayers will have a somewhat reduced burden in covering costs that are more appropriately paid from corporate profits.
In addition, a fair number of POGO’s other recommendations were included in the final NDAA: reductions in the use of cost-plus contracts, disclosure of senior mentors (many of whom have financial ties to the defense industry), improvements to and public disclosure of the Defense Contract Audit Agency’s annual report, improvements in cost comparisons for civilians and contractors, increase in competition for weapons acquisition, and more.
In spite of these baby steps, Congress is still failing to deal with the budget crunch in a real way. The so-called Super Committee was a bust, even though POGO handed them a list of nearly $600 billion in ineffective and wasteful spending in the national security budgets developed with our colleagues at Taxpayers for Common Sense—half of the amount they were tasked with trimming. And we weren’t the only ones with good ideas. TCS, U.S. PIRG, Americans for Tax Reform, and many others recommended menus of sensible cuts.
There is wide agreement that there is no shortage of wasteful spending to shed. That’s step one, and the next best strategic move is to adequately fund the elements of government that help to identify waste, fraud, abuse, inefficiencies, mismanagement, misconduct, and threats to public health and safety. POGO urges Congress to invest more in these areas:
- Transparency in federal spending
- Strong whistleblower protections, incentives, and communication
- Watchdogs and cops that take in tips and investigate wrongdoing, such as: the Office of Special Counsel, Inspectors General, the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board and its successor, the new Government Accountability and Transparency Board
- Researchers who identify problems and provide solutions, such as: Government Accountability Office, Congressional Research Service, and the Administrative Conference of the United States
- Service providers that make the government more open and ethical, such as: National Archives and Records Administration and the Office of Government Ethics
Whatever your opinion about stimulus spending, many of these principles were embedded in the Recovery Act, and there is wide agreement that there have been extremely low levels of waste in that massive spending bill. The Recovery Act is a model for having a central board as a primary watchdog and cop on the beat, unprecedented transparency in spending, gold-standard whistleblower protections and communication, and additional funding for the Inspectors General.
President Obama has moved to expand what worked in the Recovery Act to all federal spending with the new Government Accountability and Transparency Board (GATB). But in order to succeed, this Board needs more dedicated funding and authority. If Rep. Darrell Issa's (R-CA) and Sen. Mark Warner's (D-VA) bipartisan, bicameral DATA Act becomes law, there will be a robust successor to the Recovery Act Transparency Board (RATB) and it will revolutionize our ability to track all federal spending and make our government far more accountable.
“But, really, in the end, it’s up to the taxpayers — meaning you, the readers — to force change in your government. I guess it all depends on how badly you want to know how the government spends your money — more than $3.5 trillion in fiscal 2011.”
Angela Canterbury is POGO's Director of Public Policy. POGO General Counsel Scott Amey and POGO National Security Fellow Ben Freeman also contributed to this article.
Image via Flickr user McBeth.