No more $3.85 million fish

Posted: Jun 19, 2006 12:04 AM
Summer before last, the fish weren't jumpin' and the federal Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, Oregon, had to do something about it. To save an endangered species of salmon, the agency released water from its dams -- oceans of water, as it turned out, at a cost of $77 million. It was a close call, but the decision saved 20 (yes, that's two followed by one zero) fish. That works out to $3.85 million per fish.

This Big Fish story is just one of the ludicrous tales related in a recent report released by the House Republican leadership entitled, Target: Waste, Fraud and Abuse: What the Committees of the 109th Congress Have Been Doing to Fight Wasteful Spending and Bad Government. It seems that Medicaid has also been squandering taxpayer dollars by paying exorbitant prices for prescription drugs -- possibly as much as $5,336, to be exact, for a prescription that costs a pharmacist $88. Talk about "profit" margins. Make a mistake like that a few million times, and we taxpayers end up with Medicaid reimbursement costs that, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) review, "exceeded pharmacists' true costs by $1.5 billion" in 2002.

The good news is that criticism of such goings-on is finally prodding Congress to take a hard look at the spending practices, management, and cost effectiveness of federally funded programs. The House Energy and Commerce Committee, for example, has moved this year to control Medicaid expenditures by setting "realistic" reimbursement rates for prescription drugs. Elsewhere, the report details actions taken by the Judiciary Committee to stop immigration benefits fraud. These are steps in the right direction.

I can't take credit, but I like to think that maybe the message Heritage Foundation president Ed Feulner and I sent in the spring with the publication of our book, Getting America Right, is being heard by the Republican leadership in Congress. Here, in effect, is what we told them: If you want to protect the future of our country, receive the votes you need to win elections, and preserve our trust in America's leaders, you must act responsibly. We then posed six basic questions that every policy maker should ask when considering legislative proposals. One of those questions was, "Is it responsible?"

Now, I'm an optimistic guy, but up until now, even I have had some serious doubts about the Republican-led Congress' willingness to govern responsibly. That's why I am so encouraged by the House report. Published by the Office of the Majority Leader, John Boehner of Ohio, the very first paragraph includes a welcome nod to fiscal responsibility: "Congress' oversight role is more important now than at any other time in our nation's history," it says, "particularly with respect to Congress' obligation to monitor the use of taxpayer funds in the functions of government."

I could not agree more. With entitlement spending escalating out of control and reckless earmarking placating special interests at the expense of the American taxpayer, fiscal oversight has rather obviously been missing in action for quite some time. By nature, Congress deliberates on an issue, passes legislation, and then moves onto the Next Big Thing. In so doing, it fails to properly monitor the financial consequences of its actions, and opens up the floodgates for waste, fraud, and abuse.

Thoughtful Republicans in Congress know this has to change. For too long, the party of fiscal responsibility has behaved recklessly. But if this new report is any indication, Congress has heard our call for responsible leadership and is finally ready to get serious about waste, fraud, and overspending.

Identifying wasteful spending and eliminating it -- now that's the type of leadership I expect from Republicans. But there's still more that needs to be done. Next week, Congress will vote on two hugely important provisions for stopping wasteful spending: the line-item veto that empowers the president to excise specific expenditures, and the sunset clause that allows Congress to eliminate programs that have outlived their usefulness. Both are commonsense reforms that would promote fiscal responsibility. To capitalize on the momentum generated by the "Waste, Fraud and Abuse" report and to show they are really serious, legislators must approve both. If nothing else, we might be spared the bill for more $3.85 million dollar fish.