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Bass & Norquist: Congress Must Target Nonessential Spending

There has been a great deal of discussion, on both sides of the political aisle, about the need to reduce our skyrocketing federal deficit caused by runaway government spending. Unfortunately, as is far too often in Washington, it has been all talk and no action.

[IMGCAP(1)]The make-believe “deficit reduction” from the Democratic health care bill was the product of cynical numbers manipulation. The Democrats’ method for finding this “savings” would have made the accountants at Enron blush. They hid costs and relied on future spending cuts that are likely never to occur. Worse, even if this “deficit reduction” were real, which it is not, this Democratic Congress has spent the “savings” dozens of times over on bailouts and ineffective “stimulus.”

The rising debt in Washington is a problem — no one can deny that. We need to act immediately to protect the American dream for future generations. Our generation’s legacy shouldn’t be crushing, crippling debt and European levels of government spending. We shouldn’t be the first generation of Americans to leave a country worse off than it was when our parents left it to us.

The answer isn’t, as some Democrats would have you believe, more taxes. The answer isn’t a new jobs-killing European-style value-added tax that some liberals are pushing. More food in the trough of the big spenders in Washington will simply lead to fatter pigs — fattened at the expense of the American taxpayers and the American economy.

If raising new revenue through new taxes isn’t the answer, then what is? The answer is to cut spending. The answer is to ask Washington to do what average families across New Hampshire, and indeed across the country, are asked to do in tough economic times: tighten their belts, prioritize how we spend money, and eliminate wasteful, inefficient, ineffective or duplicative spending.

An important step in cutting spending doesn’t require a big new idea, but instead the resuscitation of an idea six decades old: the re-establishment of a Reduction of Nonessential Federal Expenditures Committee.

The Joint Reduction of Nonessential Federal Expenditures Committee operated from 1941 to 1974. The committee’s genesis was a desire, ironically enough, by a Democratic Senator, Harry Byrd from Virginia, to pay for World War II by cutting wasteful spending rather than raising taxes on American families.

The committee’s mission was to identify nonessential federal expenditures and recommend their elimination or reduction. The committee regularly published scorekeeping reports of Congressional action. While Congress was not required to act on its recommendations, the committee was authorized to hold hearings and call witnesses to testify, by power of subpoena.

In today’s dollars, the committee’s implemented recommendations resulted in $31 billion of direct savings and about $7.5 billion in indirect savings in just one three-year period.

A modern version of the Reduction of Nonessential Federal Expenditures Committee should take the form of permanent standing committees in the House and Senate. The committees would serve as an important watchdog for the American taxpayer and serve as an institutional counter to the House and Senate Appropriations committees, which by their very nature are encouraged to spend as much of the taxpayer dollars as possible.

To maximize the effectiveness of this effort, Congress should be required to act on the committees’ recommendations. The House and Senate should be required to vote up or down on the committees’ recommendations.

The committees should regularly issue reports on the effectiveness of Congressional spending and on federal programs. These reports should be considered by the Appropriations committees to help provide guidance on how limited taxpayer dollars can be spent most effectively.

We hear horror story after horror story about waste and inefficiency in government, such as the infamous $640 toilet seats purchased by the Department of Defense to the tens of billions of dollars lost to fraud and abuse in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. It is time that Congress took policing itself seriously.

These committees can and should be an important first step in reining in wasteful Washington spending. The committees alone, however, are not the cure to everything that ails D.C.’s big-spending ways. This is, however, a common-sense proposal that would get us started — and one that we know can work.

Charles Bass is a former Republican Congressman from New Hampshire. Grover Norquist is president of Americans for Tax Reform.

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