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Last Week's Hearst-New York Times Column

(Writer's note: The arrangement with the syndicators allows these columns to appear here one week after their newspaper release)

^(For use by New York Times News Service clients)@<
^C.2011 Hearst Newspapers@=
WASHINGTON _ As Republicans and Democrats have given themselves two more weeks to agree on a budget and avoid the partial shutdown of the federal government, except for ``essential’’ services, there is a lot of bruised self-esteem at the various agencies among those deemed ``non-essential.’’

According to the GAO, there probably should be a lot more of the latter sort.
The Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress, is certainly trying to live up to its name by performing an important service. A new GAO report released this week documents program-by-program how ``reducing or eliminating duplication, overlap or fragmentation could potentially save billions of taxpayer jobs annually and help agencies provide more efficient and effective services.’’

The ``duplication, overlap or fragmentation’’ is laid out in damning detail: There are a hundred departments assigned to surface transportation matters, 82 deal with teacher quality, 80 supervise economic development, 56 have a piece of ``financial literacy.’’ (How ironic is that one?)

Food safety is supervised by 15 entities, with conflicting mandates from the likes of the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration. We end up with confusion and contradictions that are breeding grounds for deadly illnesses that spread throughout the country. The dreary list of disorganization is a long one.


The GOP's fiscal crusader Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who ordered up the survey, probably summed it up best: ``We don't know what we're doing.’’ He goes on to say: ``We could save taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars every year without cutting services.’’

It's always worrisome when all sides agree on anything in Washington, but for what it's worth, they seem to on this study, at least publicly. The Tea Partiers in Coburn's party see it as justification for the cleaver they want to take to the budget. Democrats like Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., say it really provides a road map for ``smart cuts instead of reckless cuts.’’

So if everyone buys into the idea of government waste reduction, what's the problem? Why does Congress insist on the teeth rattling, saber rattling that threatens such disruption instead of trying to eliminate the stifling redundancy?

Part of the difficulty comes from Congress itself. Political battles are not the only ones waged on Capitol Hill. In fact, they sometimes pale in comparison to the turf battles. These are the vicious fights among the committees and subcommittees. They have oversight responsibility over every program and nobody from either party wants to give up control of his or her fiefdoms. Not only do they keep the egos inflated, but they guarantee those campaign donations from affected industries.

There are thousands of lobbyists who would like to leave things as they are, too, because they provide more targets for their influence peddling, which translates into more clients. So don't look for any efficiency experts burrowing in to see what services can be eliminated or combined. There is a definite need for something like that because, as the GAO report concludes, ``little is known about the effectiveness of most programs.’’

Is it any wonder that as the political posturing over the budget continues to leave some federal services teetering, the reaction among so many outside Washington is a resounding ``ho hum’’?

In fact, a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday shows that 46 per cent of the registered voter respondents think a shutdown would be a good thing, while 44 per cent believe it would be bad.
One matter wasn't even close. According to Quinnipiac: ``If the federal government is forced to shut down because of the impasse over spending, voters say by an overwhelming 78-18 percent neither President Barack Obama nor members of Congress should be paid for that period.’’

The Constitution says they're probably essential and the pollsters did not ask whether that was a good thing. Pity.
(E-mail: bob(at)hearstdc.com; on the Web: www.bobfranken.tv)


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