The current "waste and fraud week," as the White House calls it, is an occasion to count more than the monetary cost of the governmental waste, fraud, and mismanagement that add up to billions of dollars each year. There is a no less significant ethical and moral cost. Not only is the character of the perpetrators undermined. The intent and value of government programs are subverted. Injustice is done both to the taxpayers and to the policies, persons in need, or services supposed to be supported. The system itself is threatened. So there is apt symbolism in the name of the body being established by Mr. Reagan: the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency in Government.
But what administration has not come in calling for those very qualities? Mr. Reagan has an opportunity to follow through on his campaign attacks against waste and fraud by showing that this time the effort will be sustained, visible, and effective. The White House promises to get quickly off the mark with criminal and civil actions stemming from investigations begun by Carter officials --tors general for the various federal agencies.
The challenge of bureaucratic inertia and resistance may be suggested by last year's General Accounting Office finding that agencies could save as much as $4. 3 billion simply by acting on the measures identified by their own auditors. A Republican congressional group cited almost $35 billion lost in just 18 months through slipshod and fraudulent money handling. According to other estimates, uncollected debts alone had mounted to $95 billion by 1979. Fraud was taking $ 12 billion annually. Any number of examples could be given such as the Department of Transportation clerk who embezzled more than $850,000 through getting routine, unaudited approval of falsified vouchers. And there have been the perennial year-end rushes to use up budgeted funds wisely or not --all things, how to reduce waste in welfare.
The magnitude of the losses in dramatized when they are considered as unnecessary additions to the national debt -- on which the taxpayer is hit again by having to pay interest. At 8 percent, the interest alone on waste of $100 billion is $8 billion, many times more than Mr. Reagan's proposed savings on food stamps ($1.8 billion in 1982) or mass transit ($1.5 billion), for example, and twice as much as on eliminating CETA jobs ($4 billion).
What can be done? Modest steps such as pending legislation to check the flood of year-end governmental purchases. Determined efforts to collect debts, carry through on audits, practice good housekeeping. Updating out-moded buying practices. The latter is one improvement recommended for the Defense Department , especially now that its budget is expected to go so high. The GAO has just estimated that Defense could readily save $4 billion a year in 15 major areas, rising to substantially more than $10 billion with the addition of other economies.
Waste and fraud week?m Let's make it a year, a decade, a century.