Washington Wednesday: Federal Fumbles

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It is Wednesday, January 1st, 2020! Time flies, and we’re so glad you’ve joined us for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. A new year, and a massive encouragement from you: “Just Do More!”

Our December giving drive ended as December ended, and not only did you meet our initial goal, you met our stretch goal, and stretched our technology to the breaking point. We still have more counting to do, but I can tell you the number topped $1 million dollars, just in a few weeks’ time. There’ll be more counting to do in the days ahead, because of mail delivery, so we don’t yet have an exact tally. But suffice it to say:

We are ecstatic. We are grateful to God. We are humbled by your generosity.

REICHARD: By the grace of God! That’s the range of emotion, isn’t it? So pleased and so grateful, but also really determined to show our gratitude by taking responsibility and striving for exceptional.

So we go now from a theme of economic stewardship to a story of economic malpractice in the nation’s capital. This is Washington Wednesday, and let’s begin by acknowledging the obvious: The United States has an eye-popping federal debt, $23 trillion. Trillion, with a “t.” It’s more money than the entire economy can produce in a year, it’s that big.

EICHER: Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma recently published his latest report, Federal Fumbles, Ways the Government Dropped the Ball. It’s got many examples of wasteful federal spending and also solutions to each problem he identifies in the report.

WORLD’s J.C. Derrick visited with Lankford to talk about Federal Fumbles.

J.C. DERRICK: Well, Senator, let’s just start with your biggest takeaway from this year’s federal fumbles report. 

JAMES LANKFORD: Well, there’s work to be done is really the biggest takeaway. 

DERRICK: Really?!

LANKFORD: I know. When we’re talking about government efficiency and not just wasteful spending, but how it’s done, the process, all those things we’re trying to be able to identify those things and to be able to raise the issue enough that we can really start a dialogue. And the Federal Fumbles report is not a confrontation, it’s a conversation. It’s a, “We saw this; does everyone else see this as a problem? If so, then let’s sit down and figure out how to solve this.”

DERRICK: And it’s been a few weeks since it came out now, so has it been a good conversation piece? 

LANKFORD: It has. We’ve had folks that have called us furious and said that, “I’m so mad that you listed this as wasteful. Clearly this is not wasteful.” And other folks have called and said, “OK, yeah, there’s a problem.” 

And with other teams, we’ve had folks from other offices contact us and say, “Hey, I’m interested in your report. I’m hearing about it. Let’s talk about some of these things.”

DERRICK: Well, in the report you document a ton of different specific examples of fumbles and we’ll link to that report in today’s program transcript. But specifically one of your most provocative titles was, “While Russia meddles in our elections, our agencies are working to understand their sea lions and history.” Can you elaborate on that one a little bit? 

LANKFORD: We spent almost $2 million sending to a group that’s working with the Russian government to study Russian sea lions off their coast. Now, I’m sure Russian sea lions are beautiful animals, but I’m not sure why the American tax dollar should be studying Russian sea lions. If that’s something the Russians want to do, they’re certainly welcome to do that on their own dollar, but we’re paying for the Russian government to be able to study sea lions. 

And there’s lots of other examples that we have that are Russia related, even. We spent tons of money on doing a documentary on Stalin. We spent tons of money on studying the Russian flu of 1889. Again, all of those are fascinating topics. I’m not sure why federal tax dollars should be paying to study the Russian flu of 1889 or federal tax dollars to create a documentary on Joseph Stalin. Those are all things that can be done with private sector dollars or with Russian dollars. 

DERRICK: And I do want to get to solutions in just a minute, but first I think for the average American, they’re hearing this and probably wondering how in the world does this even happen? Can you talk about that? What are the rationales that lead to this? 

LANKFORD: The most common question I get on this is how did that happen? And we try to dig back on it. Last year we spent a lot of time on budget process, on trying to be able to fix the way we do budgeting and the way we do oversight and laid out different solutions for that. This year we’ve laid out some things, as we’ve done a couple years ago even, on grants—to say, when grants are in their approval process, there are times there’s a grant-making group that just approves a grant and says yes this is an interesting thing. But no one is asking the question what is the federal connection to that? And should we have full transparency in the information that comes back? 

We just passed through the Senate something we’ve worked on for awhile called the GREAT Act. It deals with grants to increase the transparency both for the taxpayer and for the grant recipients as well. The GREAT Act is one of those things that we worked from pointing it out, to saying this is our solution, to building a bipartisan coalition, and now passing in the Senate overwhelmingly, sending it over to the House and hoping for that to be instituted into law.

DERRICK: OK. Well, once federal money starts going to something, it typically is hard to stop it. So I’m wondering, are there areas that you see in this report where maybe some low-hanging fruit where you feel like it’s not just, “Oh, we should do away with this,” but “I think we could actually do it here”? 

LANKFORD: Yeah, there are several of them. One of them may be a little bit odd. It’s along the border. There’s been a lot of debate in Washington, D.C., about defunding ICE or about abolishing ICE. That group does the detention for individuals who come across the border. 

So if you illegally cross the border, Customs and Border Control, they will arrest you. They will process you. But they don’t hold you. They’re like a county. Like a police office. They’ll do the arresting, but then they’ll transfer them to someone else to detain them while they’re waiting on their hearing. 

Well, that person is ICE—is the that does it. So, when you cut off the funding for ICE, which was done a year ago, to say we’re not going to give any more funding, what’s the real result of that? Well, tens of thousands of people are then backed up into the police stations, the border patrol stations, and they have nowhere to go. So they had to then put up temporary tents to be able to house people in. Those tents cost $20 million a month to rent. We spent half a billion dollars last year of federal tax dollars with temporary tents that border patrol had to be able to put up to house people rather than those folks actually being in high-quality ICE facilities that are permanent, much better facilities. 

So, they were still waiting on their hearing time. They’re just waiting on it in a tent rather than waiting on it in a permanent facility. All that was based around this debate: should ICE get more funding. 

So, it becomes this really odd conversation. If you don’t fund the right entity, then it affects another entity, then it affects the taxpayer. And those individuals were not staying in a good facility. They were staying in temporary facilities. Much better than some of the very overcrowded facilities that Border Patrol has, but not as good as what the ICE facilities would have been. 

So I know that’s kind of a circuitous answer, but when you start digging into the details of why was this much money spent on this line item, you find out it has a policy and a national debate connection. 

DERRICK: Now, when you first came to D.C., early on, [and] when I first moved to D.C., you were one of my first interviews. And I remember you talking about you came as part of the Tea Party wave in 2010, and your class was laser focused on the debt. Since then, and you reference it in this report, since the beginning of 2011, despite the Budget Control Act, other measures and efforts, the national debt has risen from $16 trillion to $23 trillion. To put it bluntly, how do you explain that? 

LANKFORD: How does that happen? 


LANKFORD: So, the actual—there’s two different accounts, large accounts, of ways the federal government spends money. They spend what’s called discretionary money. That’s what you vote on every single year. And then they have what’s called mandatory spending. That’s what’s actually a formula that was done sometime in the past that you don’t vote on from year to year. Two-thirds of the budget is in that mandatory side now—

DERRICK: And growing.

LANKFORD: And growing. Over the years, more and more has been moved from discretionary, which you vote on year to year, to mandatory, just automatically happens. 

And there’s a whole bunch of reasons. Some of them we point out in the book on that. The discretionary budget, there’s a big fight over it every year, so it’s easy to say we’re going to keep the numbers the same for discretionary budget, but there’s two ways to do that: Reduce spending—take a look at programs and say this program is not effective, we’re going to put that one out because we want to spend it on a different thing. Or the other way is to move that from discretionary to mandatory. 

So now we’re still doing it, we’re still spending it, but people can’t see it the same way. A lot of that has happened. And we identify that in the book and say we’ve got to stop moving all these programs to mandatory spending every time because it just kind of hides this debt. 

The second thing is if you go back even 10 years ago, 15 years ago, the Congressional Budget Office already looked at this time period right now and said the debt and deficit is going to continue to accelerate to the level that we are in. And the prime reason for that is more people are retiring on Social Security, more folks are using Medicare—folks are obviously retiring, and that was very, very predictable—and more interest. Our interest payments 10 years ago were $200 billion. Now they’re at $450 billion a year. 

So, if you take up half-a-trillion dollars, let’s say, in overspending that happens in a year, and you add another $250 billion to that in just interest payments, there’s nothing you can do about that because as the debt increases, that increases. The only way to get on top of it is growing the economy, which we have now, but the second way is dealing with spending. 

And right now the economy is so good, so many people can find a job anywhere they want to, there are a lot of people changing jobs, income has gone up for Americans. No one wants to talk about debt and deficit. It’s like that’s a problem for another day. Actually, that’s a problem for today. Right now is the time to be able to talk about controlling spending while the economy is good. 

DERRICK: Well, and that does lead to my final question which was going to be about that very issue, the way that nobody’s really talking about this right now despite the fact that we have a Republican in the White House, Republican Senate, until recently a Republican House. But this has kind of fallen off the radar as something—I mean, do you feel like a voice crying out in the desert? 

LANKFORD: Sometimes. There are a few of us that are talking about it all the time. That’s one of the reasons we do the Federal Fumble report every year. 

The other big issue for us is there were two things that we had to do to be able to help our debt and deficit. One was get the economy growing. We did that with the tax bill. And we’ve had folks say, well, the tax bill added to the debt and deficit. Actually, it did not: We have the highest amount of money coming into the U.S. treasury ever. Ever. We’ve never had numbers as high as what we have right now. 

We actually reduced taxes on folks, but then as a result you got more taxpayers, more people have a job, more people are making more money, so they’re paying more into the treasury. The first two months of this fiscal year even are larger than last year’s numbers. 

So, the first thing they had to get is more income coming into Americans, but the second thing is reducing our spending in some key areas and being strategic. Not just across the board cuts, but strategic areas. And that is not happening, and that’s a real reason for the Federal Fumbles—to say we’ve done step one of this, but we’re not even talking about step two.

DERRICK: Senator James Lankford, thank you so much for your time today.

LANKFORD: You bet. Glad to visit with you.

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) Sen. James Lankford R-Okla. holds a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, Nov. 30, 2015, to announce the release of his federal government waste and solutions report titled “Federal Fumbles: 100 ways the government dropped the ball.” 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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