One of the advantages of a divided government in Washington, such as the current Democratic control of the House vs. Republican control of the Senate and the White House, can be that competing political dynamics lead the way toward more efficient federal spending.
But congressional Republicans over the first two years of the Trump administration have abandoned their traditional emphasis on federal deficits and debt, leaving a trail of red ink in their wake. Even the watershed moment reached last week of a $22 trillion debt barely created a ripple among GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill. In addition, targeted criticisms by Republicans of wasteful spending have been muted.
Somehow, fiscal restraint is no longer a priority. The Republican emphasis on a budget-neutral “pay-for” approach, whether it be for the massive 2017 tax cut or big Pentagon spending increases, has disappeared.
In decades past, divided government forced a compromise approach with an emphasis on priorities that teetered between limited spending advocated by the GOP and protections for the poor by Democrats. Most recently, the Obama presidency was widely restrained by budget “sequesters” that limited year-by-year federal spending while not taking an axe to the safety net.
But Democrats are not free of criticism with the emergence of an aggressive, Dem-led House in an era when Republicans have opened the door to a “deficits don’t matter” approach to legislating. Now it seems that any attempt to criticize individual spending items is completely out of bounds for almost all Democratic members of Congress, and especially for 2020 Dem candidates for president.
What’s more, impossibly expensive programs such as the New Green Deal and Medicare For All, ideas that would have been dismissed as wholly unrealistic as recently as the Obama administration, are now front and center within the Democratic agenda.
As the Democratic Party moves left, it would be wise to recognize that questionable spending takes away money from safety-net programs that help the poor and the disadvantaged. The new crop of left-wing House members seems to have entirely abandoned the means-testing approach toward new spending initiatives.
At the same time, the wasteful programs that receive derision from watchdog groups – many of these efforts amounting to federal studies with little redeeming value – certainly amount to a tiny fraction of the overall federal budget. But the days of a potential embrace of the pragmatic, overarching Simpson-Bowles approach toward fiscal sanity and deficit reduction now seem long gone.
While many federal budget watchdog groups have faded, OpenTheBooks.com has maintained an aggressive stance. The group’s founder, Adam Andrzejewski, said in a recent Fox News interview that “big-spending Republicans in Congress” now deserve a lot of the blame for deficits and debt that were once heaped upon Capitol Hill Democrats.
Andrzejewski offers up many tried-and-true examples of silly spending: A $1 million federally funded study by Cornell University of bee stings; an equally expensive NASA study of the potential impact of discovered extraterrestrial life on various religious groups; and another $1 million study on the outcome of teaching sex education to California prostitutes.
But Open The Books has also taken aim at the personnel costs of the federal bureaucracy, specifically the pay and benefits awarded to many federal employees.
The nonprofit group reported in 2016 that, over the prior eight years, federal agencies spent more than $4.35 billion on public relations while employing 3,100 PR employees.
Open The Books also found that in that in 78 of 122 federal agencies studied, the average annual wage is more than $100,000. Overall, nearly 407,000 federal workers, roughly one in five, exceeds the six-figure mark.
In recent days, the watchdog group concluded that more than 91,000 federal employees out-earn the governor of the state in which they are based. Many of these workers are doctors or scientists, even air traffic controllers, but a small number are painters, mechanics, electricians, welders and high-end clerical employees.
Congressional Republicans and Democrats should focus: Do they want to defend six-figure-plus salaries for relatively low-level federal workers while their struggling low-income constituents earn less than one-third of that amount?