How to Spend a Trillion Dollars without Waste and Fraud

You can’t.

And the federal government knows it. On Tuesday,

Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, told a House subcommittee that the government’s experiences in the reconstruction of Iraq, hurricane-relief programs and the 1990s savings-and-loan bailout suggest the rescue program could be ripe for fraud….

Gene Dodaro, acting comptroller general of the U.S., told the subcommittee that a reliance on contractors and a lack of written policies could “increase the risk of wasted government dollars without adequate oversight of contractor performance.”

With the government having already allocated $700 billion for TARP, and $787 billion for “stimulus,” and President Obama now calling for $635 billion for health care and a federal budget soaring to $3.6 trillion – well, you’d think two government reports on the likelihood of fraud and waste would be news. But this testimony didn’t make the New York Times or the Washington Post. There was a small inside story in the Wall Street Journal.

One of Greg Mankiw’s readers worked on the new Department of Homeland Security and reported recently:

you cannot juice up a government agency’s budget by tens of billions (or in the case of the stimulus package, hundreds of billions) and expect them to be able to process the paperwork to contract it out, much less oversee the projects or even choose them with any kind of hope for success. It’s like trying to feed a Pomeranian a 25 lb turkey. It’s madness. It was years before DHS got the situation under control and between the start and when they finally assembled a sufficiently capable team of lawyers, contracting officials, technical experts and resource managers, most of the money was totally wasted.

Linda Bilmes, coauthor with Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz of The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict, analyzes the massive problems in three somewhat smaller government projects — the Iraqi reconstruction effort, Hurricane Katrina reconstruction, and the Big Dig artery construction in Boston — and finds that “in any organization that starts to increase spending very rapidly there are risks of waste, fraud and inefficiency.”

Saying “nobody messes with Joe” is not a solution to the inevitability of waste and fraud when an unaccountable bureaucracy is spending trillions of other people’s dollars.