Shutdown Fatigue

The federal government shut down at midnight, when Congress proved to be unable to agree on a another stopgap spending bill.  As is usually the case, the Democrats and the Republicans used the looming shutdown to try to increase their leverage to obtain their political goals — whether those goals are immigration reform, or health care funding, or something else — and when neither side blinked, the shutdown occurred.  Of course, each side then blamed the other.

maxresdefaultWe’ve been through this scenario multiple times before, most recently in 2013.  We somehow made it through each of those prior cataclysms, and I’m pretty sure that the sun will come up today as well.

I may be wrong about this, but out here in the heartland I’m sensing a lot less angst, generally, about this shutdown than seemed to be the case with prior shutdowns.  Maybe it’s because we’ve been through this same, pointless charade multiple times before, and the country just has a lingering case of shutdown fatigue.  Maybe it’s because, with the flood of scandals and tweetstorms and investigations and unseemly behavior that has been washing over the nation in recent months, we’ve already used up our storehouses of outrage and have just been psychologically bludgeoned until we’re functionally insensate.  Or maybe, just maybe, we’ve come to recognize that all of this shutdown stuff is just more callous political maneuvering by both parties, and we’re heartily sick and tired of being viewed as mere pawns to be manipulated in the stupid power games that are always being played in Washington, D.C.

Whatever the cause, we’ll just go on living our lives, without paying too much attention to the yammering politicos and their efforts to pin all of the blame for this unnecessary disruption and unending dysfunctionality and irresponsibility somewhere else.  Who knows?  Maybe if we just ignore this latest shutdown, the politicians might realize that their shutdown gambit isn’t working anymore and actually go back to doing their jobs.

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The “Glitches” Continue And The Concerns Grow

The continuing saga of the federal government’s Affordable Care Act website is worth following, because it is telling us a lot about how modern government works, and doesn’t work, and what we should believe.

Most people, including me, have focused on the access issues with the Healthcare.gov website — that is, the fact that there are ongoing reports that people simply cannot get on the website and use it as intended, and whether the design of the system in fact works against that.  But there are other issues, too.

For example, how complete and accurate is the information the website is collecting?  Anyone who has filled out a health-care application knows that a mass of information must be provided.  A recent article quoted industry sources who estimated that only one in 100 applications completed on the website contain enough information to actually enroll someone in a plan — which of course is the entire point.  As the article notes, much more serious problems could be coming if people believe they have successfully enrolled, only to be told later that the information they provided was insufficient or lost.

And speaking of information — how secure is the data those lucky people who have been able to use the website have provided?  Health care information and financial information is extraordinarily confidential.  Given the apparent design flaws with the website, why should anyone have great confidence that the designers at least got system security right?  Given the coverage of the problems with the website, are legions of hackers around the world targeting it as an easy potential source for personal information, like Social Security numbers and credit card data?

And finally, there is cost.  Some sources have tried to piece together government contracting data to determine how much the Affordable Care Act websites have cost the taxpayer.  The Washington Post says about $400 million has been committed to the health care exchanges.  The Digital Trends website estimates the cost so far is more than $500 million, with a total cost of more than $2 billion expected.

With costs like this, it’s fair to ask whether we are really getting our money’s worth.  On Thursday, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius visited Pittsburgh as part of a nationwide campaign to tout the exchanges.  She assured the audience that the “glitches” were being addressed and the system is getting better every day.  Event planners had brought more than 20 certified health care application counselors to meet with uninsured people, but even the certified counselors couldn’t access the Healthcare.gov website.  So, who do you believe — the bureaucrat who says the system is improving, or the fact that even computer geeks can’t get it to work?

The IMF Should Shut Its Yapper

The IMF has weighed in on the silly sequestration process that our dysfunctional government implemented, saying the budget cuts in the United States were “excessively rapid and ill-designed.”

I agree with the “ill-designed” comment — no rational person could think that the sequestration process was “well-designed” — but the IMF really doesn’t seem to be troubled about the process, so much as the fact that the cuts were made at all.  The IMF report suggests that government spending cuts inevitably hurt economic growth, both in the short term and the long term.  The report states, for example, that “indiscriminate” reductions in education, science and infrastructure spending could reduce potential economic growth.

Here’s the money quote:  the IMF report concludes that the sequestration cuts “should be replaced with a back-loaded mix of entitlement savings (related to healthcare and pensions) and new revenues, along the lines of the administration’s budget proposal.”  Let’s deconstruct that conclusion.  “Back-loaded” means not right now.  “Entitlement savings” means don’t cut government payrolls or government contracts.  “New revenues” means raise taxes.

In view of the recent experience in Europe and the U.S., it’s hard to believe that reputable entities would continue to insist that government spending creates economic growth, but it’s not surprising that the career bureaucrats at the IMF and its perma-tanned leader, Christine Lagarde, reached such conclusions.  The IMF is one of those curious, quasi-governmental entities in the modern world that is supported by government money and interacts with government employees who spend tax dollars.  In view of that fact, of course the IMF is going to object to government spending cuts and contend that increased taxes are the only answer.

The IMF has zero credibility on what produces true economic growth.  It should just shut up about how the United States conducts its economic affairs and be grateful for our substantial contribution.

Why Fret About A $2 Million Federal Internship Program?

A few days ago the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued an audit report on the Office of the Chief Information Officer’s FY 2011 and 2011 Funding Received For Security Enhancements.  It’s a report by the USDA’s internal watchdog about how one section of the USDA spent part of its budget — a look at how a tiny fraction of the sprawling federal government actually used our tax dollars.  A copy of the report is available here.

The executive summary of the report notes that, in 2010, Congress more than tripled the budget for the CIO, from an $18 million baseline to $62 million, to enhance information technology security for the agency.  In 2011, the budget was set at $40 million, more than double the $18 million baseline, for that same purpose.  The CIO therefore received $64 million in additional money over the two-year period, and it funded 16 projects with that sum.

Of the $64 million, $6.7 million — or more than 10 percent — was spent on projects not proposed to Congress.  For example, $2 million was spent on a two-year internship program that purportedly was intended to “develop and sustain a highly skilled IT security and computer technology workforce.”  The CIO spent $686,000 developing a “networking website” for the program, and another $192,000 for housing.  Only one full-time intern was hired, however.  The audit report also noted that the internship program “did little to further the more pressing objective of improving USDA’s IT security.”  Stripped of the bureaucratese, therefore, the $2 million was wasted.

Some might argue, why should we care?  It’s only a few million dollars in an overall federal budget that now amounts to trillions.  For some of us, however, a few million dollars is still a few million dollars.  We don’t want to see it wasted — particularly when, in our current deficit-spending posture, we have to borrow from somebody else, and pay them interest, as part of the ugly, wasteful bargain.

More importantly, the story of the internship program reveals a deeper truth about the bureaucratic mindset.  Why would anyone charged with enhancing IT security think an internship program was an appropriate use of the money in the first place?  The real answer, I’d wager, is empire building.  Bureaucrats want to have ongoing programs they can administer and people they can supervise; those programs get built into their job descriptions, become part of their goals and objectives for the year, and help them to move up the government wage scale.  We can only imagine how the proponents of the internship program touted their development of the “networking website,” their selection of housing, and their development of the selection process as key performance successes during the year.

This is the fundamental problem.  In a government of bureaucrats looking to build their departments and pad their resumes, the spending of tax dollars is not a significant concern on the radar screen.  That culture needs to change, so that when a mid-level administrator suggests an internship program as a proper way to improve IT security, the suggestion is met with incredulity and promptly quashed.  We need tightwads, not empire builders, in our federal agencies.

The inspector general report on the USDA CIO spending shines a light on one small part of our government, and what it illuminates is a deeply troubling cultural concern.  If we ever hope to get our spending and deficit problems under control, that culture needs to change — now.  Unfortunately, neither President Obama, nor our current Congress, is doing anything to bring about that necessary cultural change.  That is why, I think, many people are considering whether we need change at the top of our government, too.

About That Concept Of “Running The Government Like A Business” . . . .

We often hear politicians, of both parties, talk about trying to run the government “like a business.”  Of course, the government isn’t a business, and it inevitably doesn’t run like a business — even when it is performing a business-like function.

The latest example of this reality is the news that Amtrak is selling food and beverages to its passengers at a loss.  In the last decade, Amtrak’s food and beverage cars have lost $833 million.  $833 million!  How did that happen?  Because Amtrak is selling food and beverage items for less than it costs to supply them.  According to the linked article, every cheeseburger costs Amtrak $16.15, yet Amtrak charges its customers only $9.50.  Every can of soda costs Amtrak $3.40, and Amtrak charges its passengers only $2.  The fact that each can of soda costs Amtrak $3.40 tells you something about Amtrak’s uncompetitive cost structure, given that any American can buy an individual can of soda — to say nothing of the per-can cost of a twelve-pack — for much less than that.

Of course, no business could remain in operation if it racked up $833 million in losses over ten years and regularly sold goods for much less than it costs to provide them.  The fact that Amtrak has done so for a decade just confirms that bureaucrats don’t think or behave like businessmen and aren’t subject to the same competitive pressures that cause companies like Wal-Mart to constantly search for ways to bring goods to market for the lowest possible price.

People of different views may disagree about whether we should subsidize Amtrak fares in order to support mass transit.  Does anyone, however, really think it is appropriate that taxpayers also subsidize the cheeseburgers and sodas that the Amtrak passengers consume on their already subsidized journeys?

Wasting Tax Dollars — High-Speed Edition

They’re talking about building a high-speed rail connection between Las Vegas and Victorville, California.  Of course, they’ve been talking about that idea for years.  The difference now is that our government is seriously considering making a $4.9 billion loan — that’s billion — to help finance the project.

Amazing, isn’t it, that after the disastrous failure of Solyndra the federal government would still consider making any loans to private firms, much less loans of billions of dollars?  That’s not the only amazing thing about this proposal, however.

For those who aren’t familiar with California geography, Victorville is 68 miles from Los Angeles.  The concept for the “DesertXpress” train thus envisions L.A. residents bound for Vegas white-knuckling their way through the appalling southern California traffic and then, just as they reach the wide open spaces of the High Desert, getting off the road and waiting for a train!  If they want to play golf in Vegas, they’ll wrestle their clubs onto the train, too!  And then, after a ride that is only about an hour shorter than driving, the train will deposit them at a station in some remote part of Vegas, so they can catch a cab to get to the Strip!  And they’ll happily pay at least $50 one-way (or more than they would pay for gas, even at today’s high prices) for this privilege!

Nothing wrong with that well-conceived concept, eh?  Skeptics might contend that our leaders should follow a simple rule:  if a business plan is so fantastic that even venture capitalists won’t buy in, the federal government shouldn’t, either.  If DesertXpress can’t convince capitalists to invest, taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to fill the void — no matter what kind of phony feasibility studies or rosy projections of increased employment might be cited in support of the project.

Remember, too, that the United States doesn’t have money on hand right now.  If we loan money to DesertXpress, we’ll first have to borrow it from other sources and pay interest.  And when the DesertXpress goes toes up, as common sense dictates it must, our loan won’t be repaid, and we’ll have to dig even deeper into our own pockets to pay off what we borrowed.  Can our government seriously be considering putting us in such a position?  Seriously?

 

On Tax Day, Remember The GSA!

All American taxpayers should be grateful this April 15, as we curse and finish our returns and contemplate how much we pay to our federal government:  we have the General Services Administration out there working for us.

You all know the GSA, of course.  Its website describes the GSA as “responsible for improving the government’s workplace by managing assets, delivering maximum value in acquisitions, preserving historic property, and implementing technology solutions.”  To translate: the GSA are the bureaucrats bureaucrats.

The GSA has been in the news lately, but not due to its selfless performance of its crucial bureaucratic mission.  No, the GSA is in the news because the agency spent $822,000 — $822,000 — on its 2010 Western Regions Conference in Las Vegas.  That included payments for upscale accommodations, commemorative coins, and $3,200 for a “mind reader,” among other indefensible expenditures.  When an Inspector General’s report uncovered the gross waste, the GSA Administrator resigned.  Now the GSA official charged with organizing the event, who has been subpoenaed to testify about the matter before Congress, has indicated he will invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.  In short, there’s not just concern about bad judgment — there’s concern that outright criminal conduct may have occurred.

If you look at the GSA website, you’ll find a video of the acting administrator of the GSA, Dan Tangherlini, soberly pledging that the GSA will adhere to the highest standards of ethics and service.  (You’ll also learn that the GSA has its own flag, which appears behind him.  Thank God for that!)  The video is a classic of buzzwords and bureaucratese — other governmental bodies are called “client agencies” and “customers,” and the response to the abuse of the Western Regions Conference talks about rules and “top-down” agency reviews.  In short, the timeless solution to abusive practices in the bureaucracy is more bureaucracy!

Forgive me if I’m not reassured that the same agency that allowed the abuse is recommitted to its end.  The only real solution to waste and abuse in government is to cut back government, period.  Does anyone really think the country would grind to a halt if the GSA budget were reduced to one-third of its current size?

As I sign and send my returns today, I’ll be thinking of the GSA and its careful stewardship of our tax dollars.  And during this campaign season, when we hear candidates for federal offices talk about how “draconian” proposed budget cuts are, and how we need to raise taxes because cutting spending is just too difficult, I’ll think “Remember the GSA!” And then I’ll vote for their opponent.