After President Obama set up a national online suggestion box asking federal workers for new ways to cut the budget, 86,000 ideas came in. Some, inevitably, were a little odd.
One suggested that Transportation Security Administration officers scour airport floors for loose change. Another said Boy Scouts could wash government cars for low pay (and a merit badge). Another: To save on federal weed-control efforts, use “Government Goats.”
But many others were more serious, sent in by people who had seen real government waste close up: Stop the “use it or lose it” budgeting policy, which leads agencies to blow taxpayer money at year’s end; stop giving paper calendars to workers who already have online calendars ; stop letting every armed service design its own camouflage.
In the end, none of those things happened. Instead, those suggestions became a little-known part of the maddening story of Washington’s budget wars.
Both parties, it turns out, have made wide-ranging efforts to survey the public about smart ways to cut the budget. The public responded — and then the politicians let most of the good ideas get away.
Obama, for instance, chose 67 suggestions out of those 86,000. While some produced results, many seemed unambitious. Often, the administration picked ideas that applauded what it was already doing, instead of forcing it to start new reforms. Still, the White House considers that a win.
“Identifying good ideas that could be expanded to achieve greater savings for the American taxpayer is, in fact, one of the goals” of the president’s program, said Danny Werfel, controller at the Office of Management and Budget.
At the same time, House Republicans were running their own effort to crowdsource the budget problem. They held online votes, picking 36 line items to cut from the budget. But then the party got distracted, and only two of the ideas became law.
After the Obama and GOP efforts fizzled or faltered, Washington got sequestration: an $85 billion “dumb” cut that slashes the wasteful and the useful in equal measure. The life cycles of these two programs help explain how smart lost and dumb won.
Obama set up the online suggestion box in 2009. Over time, it became a Wikipedia of Waste: a first-of-its-kind compilation of thousands of complaints and suggestions bubbling up from thousands of government cubicles across the land.
In addition to the budget policies, paper calendars and uniforms, they complained about the mind-bending Paperwork Reduction Act, which requires extra legalese at the end of some forms, often making them one page longer.
“It seems contrary to the reduction of paperwork,” one worker said in 2012.
In all, 16 of those ideas — four per year — have been honored as finalists for a presidential “SAVE Award.” The administration took 51 other ideas and included them in Obama’s annual budget proposals over the past three years.
The Office of Management and Budget, which oversees the SAVE program, could not provide a detailed accounting of what it had saved. But officials were clear that they count it a success. “It’s important as part of a cultural change,” Werfel said, “to make sure that we are focused on every dollar.”
The Washington Post surveyed more than 25 agencies and offices charged with implementing the program’s ideas. It got back details on all but eight of the chosen suggestions.
The review found at least 28 cases in which the program seemed to work as promised: A good idea was submitted, and Obama made it a reality. Those suggestions included reducing mailings of the Federal Register, because workers read it online; that saved $2.9 million. Another highlighted a head-slapping example of waste at the Agriculture Department: Its labs were shipping empty boxes and used gloves across the country at next-day-air rates. That stopped, with savings of $282,000 per year. In all, these 28 changes are saving more than $234 million a year.
But other chosen ideas have had a less impressive impact, or none at all. In 20 cases, the ideas were actually old ones that agencies were already acting on. The administration, for example, credited the SAVE program for an effort to reduce drug costs at the National Institutes of Health. But that actually started in 2008, under President George W. Bush. The White House also cited the SAVE program for an effort to digitize the X-rays of federal prisoners. That began in 2004, during Bush’s first term.
In seven other cases, the administration has honored ideas but has not implemented them yet. For instance, an employee at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center won a SAVE Award in 2011 for suggesting a kind of lending library for space tools.
“Everybody [puts] the same special super-duper space wrench in the same place. So that the next time, you’re not having to reorder this specialized part,” Obama enthused, recounting the idea in a teleconference with the finalists that year.
“I don’t know why we didn’t think of it before!” the president said. “We should be doing that.”
But they aren’t.
NASA decided that the original idea was unworkable. Tools used by engineers are huge and complicated, so any new “library” would have to be the size of a warehouse. No go. “Space is at a premium around here,” said Barry Green, an official at Goddard, located in Greenbelt.
Instead, NASA is trying a virtual library, a database of tools. But the agency hasn’t found a solution for a crucial problem: How can you tell which tools are in use?
“That’s the next step,” Green said. Officials are confident that they will solve the problem this summer.
In four other cases, the Obama administration was less ambitious than the workers it asked for help.
For instance, federal lawyer Kevin Korzeniewski suggested that the government stop buying expensive, hard-bound copies of the U.S. legal code. He looked up the stuff online. The books gathered dust.
“This is sort of a no-brainer,” Obama said.
But his administration applied the idea just to Korzeniewski’s s mall agency within the Treasury Department. Not the whole government. Not even the whole department. The savings — which might have been $182,000 per year government-wide — were $16,000.
In a telephone interview, Korzeniewski was asked: Wasn’t your idea meant to be applied much more broadly?
There was a pause. He was sitting with a government public relations official.
Then, a whisper in the background: “You can’t speak for other agencies.”
Korzeniewski said he could not speak for other agencies.
“We will . . . put onto the floor, each and every week, bills that cut spending and reduce the federal deficit,” Cantor told reporters in January 2011.
After Republicans took control of the House that month, the program worked as advertised. Six votes. Six winners. One of the chosen ideas was defeated by the House. The other five passed. Some of the ideas had an obvious partisan bent: cuts to programs in Obama’s health-care law, cuts to funds for community organizing and cuts to programs to save energy.
But the voters also chose budget-cutting ideas that Obama had endorsed: defund the much-criticized Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundatio n ; kill a redundant program to support educational TV; stop sending abandoned-mine-cleanup payments to states that are no longer cleaning up abandoned mines.
They added up: Altogether, the GOP projected that its 36 winning ideas could save the government $253 billion over 10 years.
But as time passed, the House fell behind. The seventh YouCut bill, for instance, got out of committee but never got a vote on the House floor. Nine winning ideas — with a potential savings of $10.7 billion — disappeared without being written up as legislation.
Rep. Mike Kelly (R-Pa.) was assigned to write legislation that would cut $380 million in loan guarantees to clean-energy companies. But nothing happened with that idea, because Kelly never wrote a bill. He got distracted.
“It was a priority, and it remains an issue of interest. But Mike’s efforts shifted when he chose to focus more on holding the administration accountable with regards to [Operation] Fast and Furious. And then when the Benghazi tragedy occurred, that took the cake,” said Kelly’s spokesman, Tom Qualtere. Now that Congress is in a new session, Qualtere said, Kelly might introduce the bill at last.
Or maybe not.
“Now there are even more priorities and actions that he’s personally leading — such as the march against the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty,’’ Qualtere said. “So it’s up in the air.”
Two YouCut ideas have become law — both wrapped up in larger bills. One of those cut money that was intended for high-speed rail lines; the GOP estimated that it would save $3.8 billion. The other cut back those payments for mine cleanup, saving an estimated $702 million over 10 years.
The rest died when the last Congress ended. Ten of them made it to the Democratic-led Senate. The other 24 did not get out of the Republican House.
“The purpose of the YouCut program was to change the culture of Washington,” Rory Cooper, a spokesman for Cantor, said in an e-mail. “Today, as is evident to anyone paying attention, that culture has been changed.”
Now YouCut appears to be dead. No new votes have been held in the current Congress. Cantor’s spokespeople did not respond to questions about the program’s status this week.
And the YouCut Web site still offers viewers a vote from the last Congress. One choice would cut contributions to the United Nations. One would end purchases of high-end chairs for federal offices. And one would terminate Environmental Protection Agency grants for community organizing.
Together, the site says, these ideas could save the country $15 billion.
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