Cal Thomas: Focus on what works

  • By Cal Thomas
  • Saturday, April 12, 2014 2:24pm
  • Opinion

The Fiscal Times reported last week that the State Department has missing files or incomplete files for more than $6 billion in State Department contracts. Steve Linick, State’s inspector general, issued a “management alert” warning that “significant financial risk and a lack of internal control at the department has led to billions of unaccounted for dollars over the last six years.”

“For instance,” writes the FT, “a recent investigation of the closeout process for contracts supporting the mission in Iraq, showed that auditors couldn’t find 33 of the 115 contract files totaling about $2.1 billion. Of the remaining 82 files, auditors said 48 contained insufficient documents required by federal law.”

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf says the $6 billion isn’t missing, but that State is merely experiencing “bureaucratic issues,” which it’s addressing.

The lack of internal control is an apt description for what is wrong with the federal government, which seems incapable of controlling its spending.

Oh, how far we’ve come from the days of our grandparents, who lived through the Great Depression and World War II. Then, slogans like “waste not, want not” and “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” were necessities not just for winning a war, but surviving as a family.

Then, children were told to clean their plates because somewhere in the world people were starving. The Puritan ethic reminded people to always live within their means. Envy, greed and entitlement were regarded as “sins.”

I recall an address given by the late Catholic Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. He asked, “How do you define a football field?” His answer? “By its boundaries.” Sheen’s point was that when boundaries are crossed, trouble ensues.

The Founders gave us a Constitution with boundaries that restrict the power and reach of government. We have exceeded those boundaries, which is why government no longer works and we have massive debt.

The duplicative nature of many government programs and the “eternal life” most seem to have without ever having to prove their effectiveness, has contributed not only to the debt, but to the deepening cynicism felt by many Americans. According to a recent Reason-Rupe poll, Americans were asked to guess between zero to 100 what percentage of their elected officials used their political power to help their friends and hurt their enemies. On average, the poll found that Americans think 70 percent of their elected officials do so. In addition, those surveyed were asked to guess between zero to 100 what percentage of their elected officials are corrupted by special interests. They responded that 75 percent were probably corrupted by special interests. Also according to the poll, Congress has an “approval rating” of just 17 percent and President Obama’s approval numbers continue to decline (43 percent) with 51 percent disapproving of his performance.

To return government to its constitutional boundaries we need a new Grace Commission. Established in 1982 by President Reagan and headed by businessman J. Peter Grace, the Grace Commission conducted an audit of the federal government with the goal of eliminating waste, fraud and abuse. Its voluminous report was presented to Congress, which promptly shelved it. In Washington, if you haven’t noticed, money is power.

What’s needed now is a new version of the Grace Commission that resembles the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC), tasked with closing outmoded military bases. Congress gave BRAC the power to close the bases and BRAC gave Congress cover so if anyone complained about lost jobs or negative economic effects in their districts, the commission could be blamed.

Most businesses conduct audits or internal reviews to make sure they are operating efficiently. Not the federal government.

Republicans, who have occasionally proposed fiscal restraint, should promise an audit of the federal government if voters return them to a Senate majority in November and the White House in 2016. It will be difficult, but it must be done or the future of increasing debt and lack of personal responsibility will cripple the country, perhaps beyond healing.

Focusing on “what works,” and getting rid of what doesn’t is the way back from the fiscal brink. We had better start soon, though, because spending like there’s no tomorrow will ensure there isn’t one for the country bequeathed to us.

Readers may email Cal Thomas at tcaeditors@tribune.com.

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