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Wednesday, December 12 , 2018, 7:15 am | Fair 43º


Diane Dimond: Need a Unifying Midterm Issue? Curb Government Spending!

Call me crazy, but I think if federal employees routinely waste millions of taxpayer dollars, someone ought to be held accountable — criminally accountable, if possible.

And anyone who signs off on obviously outrageous spending, like the person who approved buying coffee cups for the Air Force at $1,200 each, or the one who OK'd spending $3 million to study how shrimp perform on tiny treadmills, let them come before Congress and explain their actions. If their supervisor made them do it, I want to know. Let's figure out how high up the food chain these nutty expenditures are being approved.

According to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service, federal employees have been wasting our tax dollars for decades with no end in sight.

The CRS reports that during the past dozen years, employees at 20 federal agencies have made payment mistakes or authorized improper payments of at least $1.2 trillion.

Imagine: More than a trillion taxpayer dollars misspent. Can you think of any major media outlet that is shining a light on this preposterous waste of our money? Can you name any politician who is campaigning to right this sinking ship? Me neither.

This problem knows no particular political party. Every year since 2009, federal employees have sent out erroneous payments totaling more than $100 billion. Last fiscal year, which just ended in September, the total was $141 billion. In just one year!

I can think of no more serious dereliction of duty for a government employee than wasting taxpayers' money. And if the same federal agencies are making these massive financial mistakes year after year, when does the Justice Department step in, start investigating and file charges?

If this kind of repeated financial wrongdoing occurred in the private sector, say, in a bank, at a hedge fund or at a major accounting firm, you can bet someone would be under arrest. But when it's a federal worker, we just shrug our shoulders? That's not logical thinking.

Here are more recent examples of how your tax dollars are being misappropriated:

Every year, the federal government shells out about $1.7 billion to maintain empty buildings. Yep, instead of selling some of the 770,000 structures Uncle Sam owns, the feds keep paying for their upkeep. Sound like a smart idea to you?

The Pentagon spent $28 million on a really bad wardrobe choice for soldier uniforms in Afghanistan. When we outfitted the ragtag Afghan army, someone at the Department of Defense OK'd a camouflage uniform with expensive zippers (instead of buttons) that sported a lush green pattern. The bright green stood out — dangerously so — in the brown Afghan desert. Who thought that was a good idea?

And in the last month of each fiscal year, the annual September shop-athon takes place as federal agencies scramble to spend what is left in their budgets. As fiscal year 2017 came to a close last month, 67 agencies, which apparently had operated just fine throughout the year without spending everything they were allotted, went on a last-minute spending orgy totaling $50 billion. The departments of Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Justice, State and Veteran Affairs spent more than $1 billion each — in just one month. You see, when an agency doesn't spend its entire allotment, its next budget is sure to be reduced.

As Adam Andrzejewski, CEO of the government-spending watchdog group OpenTheBooks.com, described it to Marketplace: "You can buy cars, vehicles, motorcycles, bikes and scooters ... bombs, bulk explosives and grenades. You can buy fidget spinners, snowboarding equipment and booze for your liquor cabinet." And when East Coast-based agencies were not able to spend all their money before the midnight fiscal year-end deadline, their West Coast procurement officers continued the spending spree for another three hours.

Is this any way to run a government? Of course not. But don't imagine that federal employees will suddenly volunteer to expose this monumental waste of money. Why would they want to put their paychecks and perks on the line?

Every year, Washington, D.C., spends more than $22 billion to pay for federal employees' vacation and personal time off. The average federal bureaucrat gets 20 vacation days, 13 sick days and 10 paid holidays every year. That's 43 days of paid time off, such a sweet deal, and one I'm betting most readers don't enjoy.

I know this is a lot of numbers to absorb. But we all need to realize how our money is being handled. Taxes are high enough.

This irresponsible spending is not going to end unless the policies and culture of federal agencies are eliminated. And nothing will be different without a persistent public howl for responsible spending. Consider this my scream into the wilderness demanding more accountability and real reform.

If President Trump, who sold himself as the consummate successful businessman, is looking for an issue to unite the fractured electorate before the midterm elections, here it is. Sell it with the slogan, "No more $1,200 coffee cups!"

Diane Dimond is the author of Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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