A cure for Washington’s culture of debt

Zero-based budgeting might restore discipline and honesty to a Washington that seems overcome with financial attention-deficit disorder.

There’s a Washington restaurant my wife and I went to recently that proudly promotes its “Pre-Theater Specials” menu. The menu allows a Kennedy Center patron to choose between several options for a starter, main course, and dessert, all for $35. Sound like a deal?

I did the math. If I bought the items separately, they’d cost less. “The Pre-Theater Special comes with wine or coffee or something, right?” I asked the waitress.

She sighed. “No, it’s just the three food items.”

“Are they bigger portions?”

“No,” she sighed again, “it’s just the three food items.”

“You do know why I’m asking, don’t you?” I asked.

“Yes,” she sighed even louder. “You’re from out of town.”

After I quit chuckling, I realized something. The restaurant’s “special” seems representative of Washington’s ways with money.

The politicians who swell our national debt apparently are so insular that at least one restaurant that caters to them knows they can’t – or won’t – do simple math. Only we “rubes” recognize that a special is supposed to decrease, not increase prices, and have the impudence to say so.

Twenty years ago, hundreds of members of Congress were caught writing personal checks with insufficient funds. Today, Congress is doing the same but on a much bigger scale – with your money. Yet such cavalier spending seems OK at a time when even our own Treasury secretary was caught making a large “mistake” on his tax bill – in his favor.

Why is it that whoever we send to Washington, regardless of party, loses the capacity for the simple math taught in elementary school?

Call it “financial attention-deficit disorder.”

I may sound picky here, but we’re talking about huge debt. The Senate is currently debating legislation to raise the so-called debt ceiling by $1.9 trillion, to $14.3 trillion. This is just weeks after Congress approved raising the ceiling by $290 billion, after it was packaged by the speaker of the House so that any member voting against it would appear also to be against supporting our troops.

After the House vote, a congressional hearing made it clear that Washington had no idea how much the United States pays contractors in Afghanistan.

Then, the US secretary of State pledged $100 billion to help developing countries adapt to global warming. That would mean the US will end up borrowing more money from China to give it back to developing nations. For free.

Over the course of the 2008-09 financial crisis, meanwhile, Washington supported bank bailouts without legally limiting bonuses.

Now that the 2009 books are closed, some Wall Streeters are being promised their biggest year-end bonuses in history – confirming that Washington’s financial attention-deficit disorder rewards you for losing dollars, regardless of whether those dollars belong to your employer or your fellow taxpayers.

It continues: Today, we’re watching the possible passage of a healthcare program. Most serious observers report it will skyrocket the annual deficit unless massive savings can be wrung out of Medicare and Medicaid fraud. This is a promise candidates have failed to fulfill for years.

And it’s not just the federal level that doesn’t seem to remember how to count.

Washington schools are misplacing student activity funds because “oversight is ineffective and the people responsible for plundering or squandering the money are rarely held accountable,” as The Washington Post put it recently.

That series of Post articles came a year after a city employee was caught orchestrating a decade-long tax rebate scheme that makes corruption in Afghanistan appear like small potatoes.

When financial attention-deficit disorder becomes part of accepted culture, it’s easy to argue that nothing can be done. The “specials menu” has been printed already, right?

But, as Britain is discovering with its “Comprehensive Spending Review” and “Efficiency Programme,” “zero-based budgeting” may be the way to go. Zero-based budgeting is a concept promoted by Jimmy Carter. By forcing departments to account for every dollar needed, rather than adapt from last year’s budget, it may be the way to prime Washington’s financial attention.

Zero-based budgeting would force politicians and bureaucrats to question some of the assumptions on which Washington has been basing its finances. It would provide tools for reviewing, reprioritizing, and eliminating long-term activities that aren’t affordable or efficient. Government officials would have to learn to count again.

A massive overhaul in budgeting procedures obviously can’t happen overnight, but a zero-based budgeting program could be piloted effectively in a small area in any given governmental department and then expanded over time.

Eventually, say once every four years, each governmental department would have to build its budget from the ground up. After that, they could incrementally budget the following three years. This would force bureaucrats and politicians to periodically think, with minimal disruption to governmental services, about the actual dollars they were requesting, and whether those dollars are adding up the way taxpayers want.

Incremental, intermittent, zero-based budgeting would address the financial attention-deficit disorder affecting politicians and bureaucrats in our national capital.

Once bureaucrats learn to add again, I’ll bet on the so-called “specials” at Washington restaurants actually being special.

Randy Salzman is a freelance writer and former journalism professor.


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