WASHINGTON — The government shutdown is a bridge way too far, but I hate to admit that the right-wing Republican caucus sometimes has a point. Just take a look at what bureaucrats get up to on their equivalent of New Year’s Eve. It’s as wild and crazy a moment for them as it is for revelers in Times Square. The difference is that the functionaries get to blow taxpayer money.
The fun begins about a week before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. The idea is to spend every dollar in that year’s budget by midnight, or the unspent funds will be lost.
The government worker who spends every last dime will get an equal or greater appropriation the next year, perhaps even a bonus for a job well done. The one who saves for a rainy day or returns money to the Treasury won’t be so lucky.
That should teach the frugal guy in the green eyeshade who reuses paper clips how to conduct himself in the future.
It’s not as easy as you’d think to throw away billions of dollars, and much is spent stupidly. Public Notice, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog agency, documented the spike in spending over the last three years. The graph looks like the end of a blood drive when the red fills up to the top.
Public Notice cites the example of the Department of Veterans Affairs. There’s not an agency with a more sacred trust: caring for the soldiers who’ve fought, returned alive and need help getting back on their feet, sometimes literally. But over the past week, the VA has blown more than $500,000 on art, according to The Washington Post. While a veteran isn’t being seen, he can look at soothing photos of sunsets, mountains and winding roads.
Why couldn’t the VA have spent that money on making a dent in its notorious backlog of claims? Some are so old they are filled out in triplicate on carbon paper, accumulating in piles so heavy that they threaten to crash through the floor.
Jon Stewart calls it “Operation Enduring Wait.” Barbara Mikulski, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, calls it untenable. The Maryland lawmaker rolled up VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s sleeves for him last spring, demanding that he make claims — about 500,000 of which have been waiting for more than 125 days — his highest priority.
According to the VA, the backlog is now below 422,000. At that rate, veterans will grow old looking at pastoral scenes on the wall. Why didn’t someone at the VA think of allocating that money to the digitized system that’s been promised but hasn’t been completed?
That’s a boring thing to do on New Year’s Eve. The VA has a lot of practice spending on nonessentials. The agency has admitted to Congress that it spends so much (anywhere between $20 million and $100 million) on alcohol, gift baskets, concerts, limos, helicopter rides and spa treatments that it can’t provide a specific number.
The VA isn’t the only spendthrift. In 2010, the Internal Revenue Service decided its employees needed to go listen to motivational speakers flown in first class to a conference in Anaheim, Calif., where the agency also put on a show featuring an elaborate “Star Trek” set on which the taxmen acted out skits involving distress calls to Planet No-Tax while enjoying open bars and free meals.
Whatever happened to meeting in an agency’s cafeteria with an urn of coffee? We all remember the General Services Administration bacchanal in Las Vegas in 2010 that cost $823,000. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said conference overload was the result of an end-of-year shopping-spree mentality.
The one doesn’t stand for the whole, but like the dog that didn’t get run over, people seldom notice the money that isn’t wasted (cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina, sending a man to the moon). A Harvard study found that from 2004 to 2009, 16.5 percent of all spending occurred in the last month of the year and 8.7 percent in the last week. Money spent on consistent needs such as office equipment and information technology is more or less well spent, but splurging on not-well-thought-out wants, such as conferences and things to hang on the wall, never is.
Big beneficiaries of these fire sales are defense contractors who up the pizza orders and settle in for all-nighters to accommodate the last-minute flurry of Pentagon buying. The government spent 8.5 percent of its annual budget for contracts during the last week of the last three fiscal years, according to Public Notice.
Republicans and Democrats alike complain about end-of-year binges (Time magazine had a story on the practice in 1952), but nothing changes. It’s “the very debate we aren’t having in Washington but should,” said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
In 2010, President Barack Obama proposed letting agencies redirect half of their year-end surpluses to other initiatives, with the remainder going toward deficit reduction. The hope was that the mentality of procurement officials could be changed. Sure, let’s change minds and hearts, but how about changing the law, too? If Obama thinks moral suasion is working, he should check the White House’s virtual suggestion box, which contains a note from an anonymous employee complaining about the National Guard spending its extra cash on so much ammunition that there weren’t enough people to fire it all.
Heedless spending doesn’t make government as bad as Republicans say, but it doesn’t increase people’s trust that government can run things such as a health-care system. It leads to suspicion that everyone’s on the take and government has its wallet open for them.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.