Cutting the meat and keeping the fat

Posted: Aug 14, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Former President Harry Truman once said, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." Well, I hope Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld has a loyal pooch at home, because his overhaul of America's military is not winning admiration or friendship from Washington's establishment. Since taking office in January, Rumsfeld has infuriated the Ivory Tower eggheads with his determined effort to build and deploy a national missile defense system. He has upset the Pentagon brass for excluding them from his Quadrennial Defense Review and other planning issues. He has even piqued conservatives, a natural ally of this administration, for allowing the Navy's training range on Vieques to be closed and for not winning more supplemental funding. Finally, Rumsfeld has had to soothe the enormous egos of congressional members who were grousing that the Pentagon chief was not forthcoming enough on policy issues. Today, senators and congressmen are still complaining, but not because of Rumsfeld's silence. Rather, Rumsfeld has set his sights on the Holy Grail of congressional pork -- military bases. Continuing the drastic and potentially dangerous reduction of the military force structure, the Pentagon, last week, announced its proposal to close more of its 398 bases around the nation over a six-year period from 2003 to 2009. Dubbed the Efficient Facilities Initiative, it will continue the effort to mothball America's military installations, which began in 1990 with the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act. Pentagon officials are also working on a plan to eliminate numerous U.S. military bases around the world -- an effort that does not require congressional approval. During the seven years between 1988 and 1995, 97 bases were closed, resulting in a savings of $15.5 billion, Pentagon officials estimate. Now, defense analysts claim another $3.5 billion can be saved annually by closing and consolidating more facilities. Whether you think Rumsfeld is right or wrong, he should be applauded for trying to save money. Without question there is waste, fraud and abuse at the Pentagon, as evidenced by the recent credit-card fiasco. But the real question is: Why must the department responsible for America's national security be the only federal agency to tighten its belt? Fraud, cost overruns, bad management, excessive facilities, outrageous perks and needless programs are prevalent throughout the federal bureaucracy. One of the most recent examples is the Postal Service's decision to reward inept managers with year-end bonuses of up to 25 percent of their annual salaries even though the service is expected to finish fiscal year 2001 with a deficit between $2 and $3 billion on an operating revenue of $65 billion. In 2002, the Postal Service is expected to fall short by $3.5 billion. If the Pentagon believes it can eliminate some of its 398 bases without hurting national security, surely the Postal Service can close a few of its 27,000 facilities without making mail delivery any worse than it already is. As egregious as the management is at the Postal Service, it is only the tip of the iceberg. For years, best-selling author Martin Gross has been chronicling government waste and mismanagement in his book, "The Government Racket: Washington Waste From A to Z." In the most recent edition, Gross shows how the Internal Revenue Service spent $36,000 of confiscated taxes on a maintenance contract for a computer that hadn't been used for three years. He describes a "Taj Mahal" federal courthouse built in Boston that cost $218 million - $13 million of which went to the architect -- even though the General Services Administration said at the time that the government had over 17 million square feet of vacant office space. Since 1993, the federal government has foolishly spent over $5 million trying to implement the metric system and the National Park Service flushed $445,000 down the drain for an opulent two-toilet outhouse in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area. But you can't just blame the federal agencies. Congress is renowned for spending tax money on downright stupid projects, such as: $107,000 to study the mating habits of the Japanese quail; $104,055 to study facial expressions; $384,000 to count the number of cats and dogs in Ventura County, Calif.; and $229,460 to study the sex life of houseflies. House Majority Leader Dick Armey devotes a whole section of his website to catalog waste, fraud and abuse in the federal bureaucracy and has numerous examples from the National Transportation Safety Board, the Agriculture Department, the Department of Education, the Veterans Administration -- the list goes on. Groups like Citizens Against Government Waste employ dozens of people to inventory the billions of dollars of waste, but nobody wants to fix the problems. Rather, as is usually the case, the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who risk their lives for our defense are the first -- and only -- federal employees who are required to sacrifice and do more with less. If members of Congress want the military installations in their districts to remain open, they had better stop authorizing such frivolous spending and take seriously their constitutional duty of oversight of the executive branch. Or does the public need to pony up a few hundred thousand dollars to study congressional cowardice and members' inability to "just say no" to pork barrel spending?