Uncle Sam's Dusty Ledger

It shouldn't shock anyone that the federal government's books left a lot to be desired at the end of the first attempt in 200 years to account for all assets and obligations. We're talking trillions of dollars, after all. Today's public sector has nearly eclipsed Senator Dirksen's famous dictum, "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking about real money."

But no matter how they've multiplied, the billions still need to be kept track of. So we hope the administration's efficiency expert, Vice President Al Gore, was right when he said the Treasury Department's accounting report would serve as "a road map" to solve the government's problems.

Those problems are, in a word, vast. The same 1994 law that mandated the Treasury report instructed the Government Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, to audit the report. The GAO found only 7 of the 24 major federal agencies had their accounts in passable shape.

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The worst offender, not surprisingly, was the Pentagon. No one there has ever tried to keep a central record of all those military assets, spread around the country and the world. On the upside, among those getting top marks from the GAO were the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration.

Efficiency and honesty should be twin goals for government. This initial effort to look harder at the books ought to encourage both.

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