By Congressman Joe Pitts
"Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before." - "Star Trek" opening
The IRS spent more than $50,000 on a "Star Trek" parody video for a 2010 Anaheim, Calif., conference that cost taxpayers more than $4.1 million. You may have seen it online. While it appears to be a cheap knockoff, even a second-rate video production is quite expensive.
There's a lot of debate right now about how much waste there is in the federal government and how we go about eliminating it. At the beginning of his administration, President Obama challenged his cabinet secretaries to cut a combined $100 million out of a $3.67 trillion budget. This didn't actually represent an actual cut. Almost every single agency received tens of billions of dollars in stimulus funds in the same year.
The President said he wanted to use a "scalpel, not an axe." That's a great talking point, but the follow through on that was severely lacking. Perhaps one of the biggest problem is that many government agencies cloak waste under legitimate requests for expenses.
According to the inspector general for the IRS, the money spent on the Anaheim conference was supposed to be used to hire new enforcement employees. The IRS itself estimates that the gap between what the government should collect in taxes and what it actually collects is more than $385 billion.
New investigators are supposed to help make up this gap. Essentially, the IRS found a way to waste the people's money twice over.
In total, the IRS spent nearly $50 million on conferences between 2010 and 2012. In every one of these years, the government borrowed more than $1 trillion. Clearly, there was no one at the agency using the President's scalpel.
Excessive spending at conferences has been a problem for years. Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican, has done an admirable job of exposing these expenses and other forms of waste. For instance, he revealed how spending for conferences at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Health and Human Services Department, State Department and other agencies exploded in the last decade.
When he wrote the IRS last year asking them to document conference spending, they wrote back saying less than $500,000 had been spent. So, even when Congress tries to do its job of oversight, agencies are hardly cooperative.
The President proposed sequestration as part of the deal to raise the debt limit in 2011. Since that time he has often denigrated it as a crude instrument for cutting spending.
I agree with him that it is far from the best way to get rid of waste. Our debt is being driven mainly by entitlement programs that are on autopilot. We could double the sequestration cuts and still wouldn't come even close to balancing the budget.
When we look at the reality of sequestration, we can see that it is far from the doom-laden predictions of a few months ago. Faced with a real budget axe, agencies have found ways to economize.
The Department of Defense originally called for 22 furlough days for civilian employees. So far, that has been cut to 11 days. The Environmental Protection Agency also cut three furlough days bringing the total down to just under seven. The Park Police, who patrol monuments in Washington, ended their furloughs after June 1. Let's not forget about the FAA, who shifted existing funds to keep air traffic controllers on the job after prodding from Congress.
Every one of these agencies found ways to save and reduce the need to furlough workers. When the axe fell, they were forced to make tough budget decisions. The kind of tough decisions families and businesses have been making with their own budgets.
The final frontier for the government is actually reducing expenses. If we want to boldly go where no man has gone before, then we need to really cut the waste and balance the budget in the next ten years. Republicans put forward a plan to do that. The President's scalpel plan calls for hundreds of billions of new debt from now to eternity.