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The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee‘s platform, “A New Direction for America,” vows to “restore the budget discipline of the 1990s that helped eliminate deficits and spur record economic growth.” If members of the new congressional majority are seeking pointers on how to rein in federal spending, they might glance across the aisle. The Federal Financial Management Subcommittee, under the chairmanship of Sen. Thomas Coburn (R-Okla.), exercised exacting oversight over how federal money is being spent, something that has been all too rare in Congress recently. Coburn also showed that effective coalitions can be built on issues of sound fiscal management. He forged working relationships with Republicans John McCain (Ariz.), John Warner (Va.), and Jim DeMint (S.C.) and Democrats Russell Feingold (Wis.), Barack Obama (Ill.), and Thomas Carper (Del.), the subcommittee’s ranking minority member. For example, Coburn and Obama teamed up to push the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act into law this fall. The act creates a searchable database of government grants and contracts. A cross-ideological coalition of groups, from the conservative Family Research Council to the liberal Common Cause, backed the database as an effective tool for citizens seeking to learn how federal money is being spent. BACK TO THE BLACK In 2001, the federal government’s ledgers were still in the black. But then 9/11 generated more federal spending on defense and homeland security; so did the No Child Left Behind Act, Medicare prescription drug reform, and other domestic programs. Spending also rose for the entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. And ever since, we’ve had deficits. Unfortunately, as Obama has noted, too many legislators accept the status quo when it comes to appropriations, placing parochial needs ahead of the overriding national interest. A particular problem is that many legislators use special insertions in appropriations bills — earmarks — to evade thorough vetting of their pet projects. Thanks to the pressure exerted by fiscal watchdog groups, the news media, and concerned legislators, however, things are starting to change. The previous Congress, led by the Republicans, advanced a budget plan that would eliminate 10,000 earmarks and pork projects. Now, Democratic leaders are talking about freezing spending for one year and issuing a moratorium on earmarks until real reform measures are instituted. The new Congress will have plenty to reform. The Financial Management Subcommittee issued a report in October identifying $1.1 trillion in spending waste. Included were such items as: • $474 million spent implementing the problem-plagued, unfinished Defense Travel System, which should have been completely operational four years ago;

• $47 million in cost overruns constructing three buildings for the Securities and Exchange Commission; • $9.9 billion in fiscal 2007 for information technology projects that the Office of Management and Budget says are not well planned; • An estimated $38 billion blown on improper payments by the federal government in 2006; and • An estimated $33 billion in fraudulent Medicaid payments. That’s not to mention the soaring cost of the 2010 census compared to that of the 2000 and 1990 counts. The new majority may not tackle all the items on this list, but there is plenty of waste, fraud, and abuse to slash. AN UNSUSTAINABLE BURDEN The most pressing challenge, as David Walker, U.S. comptroller general, told the Financial Management Subcommittee last spring, is to bring entitlements under control. Walker testified that by current estimates, spending for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid combined will grow to more than 15 percent of gross domestic product in 2030 from today’s 8.9 percent. He called that “an unsustainable burden on the federal budget and future generations.” Each party has its share of big spenders. Still, can we trust the new majority party, which has been identified with ambitious spending policies ever since the New Deal, to rein in spending? If Democratic members in Congress are sincere in their professed goal of restoring fiscal responsibility to our government, then they should pick up where the Financial Management Subcommittee left off in identifying waste, fraud, and abuse. They should reach out to fiscal conservatives on the other side of the aisle in an effort to build effective bipartisan coalitions. If they can do that, perhaps they can even summon the will to reach an effective consensus on the so-called third rail of American politics — reforming those burgeoning entitlements. Ensuring the fiscal integrity of the federal government should not be a partisan issue.

Stephen M. Lilienthal is a master’s degree candidate in library and information science at the Catholic University of America. He previously served as a policy analyst at the conservative Free Congress Research and Education Foundation.

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