WASHINGTON — As the government grapples with runaway deficits and soaring debt, American politics this week is embracing one of its time-honored, wished-for solutions — cutting waste, fraud and abuse.
Worthy on its face, the goal of making government more efficient offers the politically delightful benefit of appearing to cut government without cutting popular benefits or services — or charging more for them.
The crusade often fails, however, to deliver anywhere near the savings needed, particularly in the face of annual budget deficits now topping $1 trillion.
President Ronald Reagan tried, appointing a Private Sector Survey on Cost Control, known as the Grace Commission for its chairman, to search out waste and fraud in 1982.
Among its recommendations to improve efficiency: cutting military and civilian retirement benefits, raising electricity rates, and allowing competitive bidding for moving military families to and from Alaska and Hawaii.
Congress ignored most of its recommendations.
President Bill Clinton tried, too, naming a National Partnership for Reinventing Government in 1993 to make Uncle Sam more efficient.
It had some success. Based on its recommendations, Clinton ordered cuts to the federal workforce and set customer service standards for federal agencies.
Vice President Joe Biden jumped in Wednesday, announcing a plan to clean up Medicaid, the health care program for the poor, Medicare, the health program for the elderly, and unemployment compensation for the out of work.
"Today's announcement on cutting waste," Biden said, "shows that we can make our government more efficient and responsible to the American people."
Biden's plan would save an estimated $2.1 billion over five years and would give $900 million of that to the states, which share responsibility for Medicaid.
While every penny saved by cutting waste helps, trimming $2 billion from a federal budget totaling more than $3.7 trillion is a drop in the bucket — far less than 0.1 percent.
Still, the dream of solving budget problems by targeting waste is widely held.
In Congress, a top member of the new "supercommittee" charged with slashing $1.2 trillion from projected deficits over 10 years suggested Tuesday that cutting waste and fraud might allow Congress to avoid politically painful cuts in popular programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.
"There may be very substantial savings that can be obtained from administrative efficiencies that would not involve cuts in these programs," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. "You hear a lot of talk about waste, fraud and abuse. It's a trite phrase, but the reality is there's a significant amount of truth to it."
And in a debate Monday, some Republican presidential candidates suggested they could find enough waste, fraud and abuse to finance broad federal programs such as the Medicare prescription drug benefit.
"We saved over $5.3 billion," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said of his state's success rooting out inefficiencies. "I'm thinking there might be more waste and fraud in the federal government than even there is in the Texas government."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich went farther, calling it "Washington mythology" to talk about potential cuts in defense spending or entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security.
"Anybody who knows anything about the federal government," he said, "knows that there's such an enormous volume of waste, that if you simply had a serious all-out effort to modernize the federal government, you would have hundreds of billions of dollars of savings falling off."
Others said, however, that it's misleading to suggest that anyone could find enough waste to avoid painful choices on the federal budget.
"I know something about taking waste out of enterprises. I'd love to do that to the federal government. And there is massive waste," said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney at the presidential debate. "But we're not going to balance the budget just by pretending that all we have to do is take out the waste. We're going to have to cut spending."
And Douglas Elmendorf, director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, told Kyl and the congressional supercommittee that, while cutting waste and fraud is a constant and worthy goal, there's no evidence that it could produce "a large share of the $1.2 trillion or $1.5 trillion or the larger numbers that some of you have discussed."
"Citizens will either have to pay more for their government, accept less in government services and benefits, or both," he said.
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