A Modest Suggestion for Improving Government Oversight

In a Gallup poll released June 19, only 29 percent of the public said it has “a great deal/quite a lot” of confidence in Congress. Although this is a higher figure than the 18 percent approval rating Congress earned in the early 90s, its substantially lower than the 42 percent Congress enjoyed when Gallup began this annual poll 30 years ago.1

It’s no wonder. Fueled at times by public demand but at least as often by crass political concerns and special interests, Congress over the years has let the federal government grow to huge, some would say unmanageable, proportions.

Our federal government literally loses track of billions of dollars in cash and equipment, designs programs that can’t possibly work, spends money on redundancies (public radio and television in the Internet Age) while underfunding critical programs (port and border security) and adds new programs at the drop of a hat.

Consider recent headlines:

* Fueled by political considerations, Congress appears poised to approve a Medicare prescription drug benefit that The Heritage Foundation, normally an ally of those behind the proposal, calls an “impending disaster for all Americans.”2 The plan is a disaster not because our best minds lack the ability to design a financially-sound comprehensive health insurance program for seniors, but because, after years of dawdling, Congress has decided to rush the job. This fast-tracked proposal will not cost less than $400 billion over ten years (likely much more). It will end much of the employer-based prescription drug coverage 34 percent of all seniors now enjoy.3 As it is not means-tested, it will cause poor Americans to subsidize rich Americans. Heritage says the proposal will result in “soaring costs that can and will be controlled only through price controls and a direct or indirect rationing of drugs.”4 As its actual price tag is unknown but astronomical, it inevitably will lurch Medicare into insolvency years ahead of predictions. Yet, the Senate Finance Committee approved the proposal only 48 hours after its major provisions were unveiled, allowing no time for serious debate. The bill may be law within a month.

* Then there is the Pentagon, specifically the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). Building the ship – which is designed to maneuver in shallow waters near shorelines – is a worthy endeavor, but one wonders if the Pentagon’s proverbial right hand knows what its left is doing. The U.S. Navy has awarded a $15 million contract to a defense contractor to evaluate the performance of composite materials in naval vessels.5 Yet, this same contractor, Northrop Grumman, is simultaneously seeking a contract to build the LCS from composite material. For the sake of national security, let alone the up to $15 billion taxpayer dollars the ship may cost,6 one hopes the Navy is more than a little aware of the potential conflict of interest. However, with 700,000 civilian employees7 and a mission encompassing homeland security, intelligence operations, peacekeeping missions, running Afghanistan and Iraq and its traditional military role, it is almost impossible for even the most skillful people to run the Pentagon without a few things falling through the cracks.

* There’s also the Bush Administration, Iraq and WMD. Though most Bush critics expose their thinly-veiled hope that the President lied about WMD, the issue points to a more bi-partisan problem: America’s intelligence services have had glaring weaknesses for decades. Yet, this matter that deserves thoughtful analysis and repair is instead the province of those who exploit it for political gain.

Can we help our federal government serves us better? The answer partly lies in improved oversight. Unfortunately, government is so large, even a perfect Congress couldn’t monitor it all.

A modest suggestion. If Congress were to adopt biennial budgeting – i.e., adopt a two-year budget every other year instead of one-year budgets every year – it could spend half its time scrutinizing federal programs and considering how to improve any that are ailing. It would have more time to consider how to modernize Medicare while saving it from insolvency; to scrutinize the federal procurement process and to improve departments that help keep us safe in a dangerous world.

Such a reform would not necessarily turn our federal government into a lean, mean, public-serving machine, but it would at least be a positive, bipartisan step in the right direction.


Amy Ridenour is president of The National Center for Public Policy Research.


1 Frank Newport, “Military, Police Top Gallup’s Annual Confidence in Institutions Poll: Little Change in Confidence In Newspapers; Church Enjoys Modest Rebound in Confidence,” Gallup News Service, The Gallup Organization, Washington, D.C., June 19, 2003, available at http://www.gallup.com/poll/releases/pr030619.asp as of June 19, 2003.

2 Stuart M. Butler, Ph.D., “The Medicare Drug Bill: An Impending Disaster for all Americans,” WebMemo #293, The Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C., June 13, 2003, available at http://www.heritage.org/Research/HealthCare/wm293.cfm as of June 19, 2003.

3 Robert E. Moffit, Ph.D., “What’s Wrong with the Senate Drug Bill,” WebMemo #297, The Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C., June 18, 2003, available at http://www.heritage.org/Research/HealthCare/wm297.cfm#_ftn4 as of June 19, 2003.

4 Ibid.

5 John Surrat, “Northrop Grumman Awarded $15M Contract,” Southeast Mississippi/Gulflive.com, May 2, 2003, available at http://www.gulflive.com/mississippi/index.ssf?/xml/story.ssf/html_standard.xsl?/base/news/1051870619237520.xml as of June 18, 2003.

6 Bruce Alpert and Bill Walsh, “On the Hill: News From the Louisiana Delegation in the Nation’s Capital,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 15, 2003, available at http://www.nola.com/news/t-p/index.ssf?/base/news-0/1055657393325730.xml as of June 18, 2003.

7 Tanya N. Ballard, “Rumsfeld: Defense Needs Personnel Reform to Manage Better,” GovExec.com Daily Briefing, June 4, 2003, available at http://www.govexec.com/dailyfed/0603/060403t1.htm as of June 17, 2003

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