On Tuesday, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) took the opportunity to chastise the $24 billion of wasteful federal spending on IT services. According to the Hill, the finding that he was referencing came from a recent report presented by the Government Accountability Office, which found billions of dollars of waste and duplication on IT spending in various departments throughout the federal government.
Sen. Coburn then went on to make the point that this amount–$24 billion—is roughly equivalent to 30 percent of the sequester. This goes to show that if spending cuts really need to be made (we believe they do), it’s not a problem of not having things to cut. Really, it’s an issue of (1) finding where the marginally wasteful spending is, and (2) gathering together the will power and political coordination among legislators to actually implement those cuts.
Several months ago, during late 2012 and the end of last February, Washington politicians went through dramatized debates over how to resolve the issue of impending automatic sequestration cuts. Most people did believe that the process of sequestration as a method for cutting spending is arbitrary and not well-formulated. After all, the undesirable nature of sequestration cuts is the reason why it was originally devised as an incentive to encourage the 2011 “Supercommittee” to agree to make $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years. Needless to say, the Supercommittee failed, and all subsequent efforts to engender a budget agreement in place of sequestration have failed as well.
The divide on the issue was/is generally as follows: Republicans want to replace the arbitrary sequestration cuts with more deliberated cuts to certain elements of government spending believed to be wasteful. Many Republicans have sought to refocus the cuts away from the military and onto domestic discretionary spending. On the other hand, Democrats propose an outright repeal of the sequestration cuts, with any replacement being far less important and unspecified, or partially rooted in revenue increases that go beyond what was raised from the fiscal cliff deal. Often, Democrats have paid lip service to the idea of a mixture of revenue increases and spending reductions, but their proposals have shown to fall largely on revenue increases.
The example of wasteful IT spending is a very beneficial contribution to the ongoing debate over sequestration cuts. Arbitrary cuts do not have to be levied if useful cuts can be made to legitimately wasteful and duplicative programs. The deficit can be reduced while elements of government believed to be more essential can be preserved. The case of wasteful IT spending shows that there is not truly a lack of spending that can be cut, but rather a blindness to much of the waste that already exists, and political gridlock that prevents us from taking actions to cut it.
Even if Democrats harbor the philosophical belief that the federal government should do more, it is still unreasonable for them to reject any spending-side replacements to sequestration cuts. Essentially, such a position is asserting that nowhere in the $3.8 trillion worth of federal spending is there a measly two percent of it that is unnecessary and can be gotten rid of. As columnist George Will put it:
The sequester has forced liberals to clarify their conviction that whatever the government’s size is at any moment, it is the bare minimum necessary to forestall intolerable suffering.
Same goes for Republicans regarding defense—there is no reason to believe that the current level of military spending is the bare minimum necessary to keep Americans from suffering intolerable danger from abroad. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that there is plenty of waste within the Pentagon budget that can be slashed.
Sen. Coburn’s point regarding wasteful spending on IT activities is a rather insightful one, because it proves that while politicians may be gridlocked over spending cuts due to false perceptions of the dire necessity of nearly all spending, the answer to where cuts can easily be made is hidden in plain sight.