Fiscal Trivial Pursuit
By Ruth Marcus,
About that $16 muffin — it didn’t actually cost that much.
You may have heard about the muffin, how conference planners at the Justice Department blithely forked over that inflated sum — your taxpayer dollars — to a Washington hotel for a training conference on immigration law. It seemed a classic tale of government waste, up there with the iconic $600 Pentagon toilet seat.
Except, as it turns out, the receipt on which the Justice Department’s inspector general based that assessment was written in a kind of catering short-hand. The muffin billing actually included: free meeting space, complimentary coffee, fresh fruit, assorted baked goods, taxes and tip. In short, a decent price for a continental breakfast.
Is there wasteful spending in government? Of course — and some of it was detailed in the inspector general’s report. It should be investigated and eliminated, not least because it does damage far in excess of the amounts involved, eroding public confidence in government’s ability to spend its money wisely.
Worse, though, episodes such as the tale of the $16 muffin give politicians an excuse to focus on fiscal trivia instead of the serious challenges that would remain — even if no government worker ever again scarfed down a taxpayer-funded breakfast pastry.
As if on cue, there was Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) at a conservative conference in Florida invoking the mythical $16 muffin in arguing against a serious proposal by President Obama to rein in costly federal health-care spending. Yes, Perry was against reining in entitlement spending; more about that in a bit.
“You know, there was a report revealed this last week that bureaucrats in Washington were spending money on $16 muffins,” Perry said. “Don’t tell me there’s not waste to be cut, and don’t ask us for more of our money, Mr. President.”
While Perry inveighed against overpriced muffins, Washington was embroiled in its own game of fiscal Trivial Pursuit, once again getting to the verge of a government shutdown in a dispute over $1.6 billion. Really, billion with a “B.” An amount that came to an infinitesimal 0.153 percent of the trillion-dollar spending bill under discussion. In the context of the overall federal budget, even less, 0.04 percent.
Why? Because Republicans insisted that, despite the customary practice, one slice of disaster aid had to be paid for with offsetting cuts. Maybe, given the mounting pile of debt, it’s time to stop charging this disaster spending on the national credit card. Maybe the money the Republicans targeted for repurposing — loans for developing electric cars and other energy-saving technology — could be better spent.
But really, how embarrassing for Congress to go to the brink over $1.6 billion. Is there a better illustration of the lack of serious purpose, of the gaping mismatch between political will and national need? If lawmakers find it this hard to resolve a fight over $1.6 billion, what hope is there for forging agreement on the $1.5 trillion in savings the congressional supercommittee is supposed to produce? What hope is there for agreement on the additional $3 trillion (at least) in savings needed to stabilize the debt?
Not much, I’m afraid, which gets me back to Perry and entitlement reform — specifically, health-care spending for the military. Under a 2001 program called Tricare for Life, military retirees on Medicare receive free additional coverage for out-of-pocket costs, worth about $2,100 annually. In his debt package, Obama proposed a modest annual payment, beginning at $200 and rising gradually, for a savings of almost $7 billion over the next decade.
Perry pounced on this “offensive” idea: “President Obama had the audacity to propose to veterans that they should be required to pay $200 when they turn 65 years old in order to get their Medicaid benefits.” Actually, governor, it’s Medicare, and the cost would be for the additional insurance.
But no matter — a politician can never go wrong siding with Our Troops. “Mr. President, the men and women of our military who have served our country with courage every single day have already sacrificed enough,” Perry declared. “The least you can do, Mr. President, is to have the courage to cut the government bureaucracy instead of cutting their benefits.”
This led, not surprisingly, directly to the $16 muffin. Let the politicians rage about government waste and stage showdowns over trivia. Until they demonstrate willingness to tackle entitlement spending, with changes that entail sensible sacrifice, they do not deserve to be taken seriously.