Waste, Fraud, and Stimulus

At Capitol News Connection, brought to you each morning by your tax dollars, they reported this morning:

With more than a trillion tax dollars tied up in the Troubled Asset Relief Program and stimulus spending, Congress is trying to figure out how to account for every penny.

Uh-huh. Congress is always on top of our federal dollars.

Coincidentally, just hours after the CNC report, the Government Accountability Office released a report warning about the lack of oversight procedures in the kitchen-sink stimulus bill. And a few days earlier the inspector general for the TARP program reported that Treasury has no real details on how TARP funds are being spent. In fact, IG Neil Barofsky told Congress that there were 20 criminal investigations into possible TARP fraud already underway.

Two months ago Barofsky and the comptroller general had warned of the likelihood of waste in huge new government programs:

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.”

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

[Y]ou 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.”

Milton Friedman summed up the basic problem with government waste back in 2002:

When a man spends his own money to buy something for himself, he is very careful about how much he spends and how he spends it. When a man spends his own money to buy something for someone else, he is still very careful about how much he spends, but somewhat less what he spends it on. When a man spends someone else’s money to buy something for himself, he is very careful about what he buys, but doesn’t care at all how much he spends. And when a man spends someone else’s money on someone else, he doesn’t care how much he spends or what he spends it on. And that’s government for you.

Members of Congress can make all the speeches they want about their commitment to ferreting out waste and fraud, but waste and fraud are inevitable in government spending and inevitably large in such massive programs. Some people think that’s fine. At least they’re realistic. But reporters shouldn’t fall for politicians promising to spend unprecedented sums of other people’s money quickly and wisely.