“We should eliminate waste, fraud and abuse”

You win a prize if you can name the politician who promised to do this when they were elected to office. O wait, as it turns out, every single candidate for every elected office from President to deputy school board member has made a promise to “eliminate waste, fraud and abuse” in the government. From the tone of campaigns, you’d think that Washington (or state capitals) was just full of all this waste, fraud and abuse (WF&A) and that all of our elected representatives are completely unwilling to do anything about it. At least now that we have all these vigilant waste-cutters on the case, surely this problem has been completely solved?  Well, yes and no.

As it turns out, there is very little obvious WF&A around in Washington. Ezra Klein has the rundown of all the WF&A that Obama proposes eliminating in his deficit plan. It doesn’t amount to a whole lot of money, “just” “$160 billion over 10 years, and a big chunk of that ($30 billion or more) would come from cracking down on tax cheats by beefing up the IRS, hardly an uncontroversial thing to do.” That’s because, if there were obvious sources of WF&A in the government, they would have been taken care  of by now.

The claim that someone is going to go to Washington to clean up all the WF&A floating around is mostly chimerical. All the stuff everyone can agree on has  been taken care of already. If a candidate says they’re going into government to clean it up, ask them what exactly they will do and how much that will actually save, then you’ll get a more honest picture of what they’re talking about. You see, everyone has a different idea of what actually constitutes waste or fraud or abuse.

For instance, someone from the religious right would probably say that its a waste to spend money on birth control for low income women. Of course, there are plenty of women’s health advocates who would strongly disagree.

I might argue that there are many wasteful defense projects and that it is a travesty that the Pentagon can’t even be audited because “serious financial management problems at the Department of Defense made its financial statements unauditable.” But there are probably many defense contractors who would disagree and say that military spending doesn’t need to be audited, “trust us.”

There is very little obvious waste, fraud and abuse left in the government. The WF&A that is still there is, in almost all cases, there because it is protected by powerful interest groups. And, in many respects, waste is in the eye of the beholder. One man’s sinkhole for tax dollars is another man’s valuable government service. If it was easy to find and eliminate waste in the government, someone would have done it already.

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