SENATOR WILLIAM PROXMIRE (D-Wis.) and United Press International political reporter Donald Lambro have two things in common: a visceral hatred for government waste and authorship of remarkably similar books on the subject. Proxmire's is called The Fleecing of America [capitalizing, of course, on his notorious "Golden Fleece Awards"] and Lambro's Fat City: How Washington Wastes Your Taxes.
Both authors range broadly, denouncing programs across the gamut of federal activities. Both react especially strongly against luxuries taken by, and subsidies given to, various government employes. They wax particularly indignant when attacking military brass hats being waited on by enlisted-man servents, bureaucratic fat cats parading in government limousines, or greedy congressmen soaking the taxpayer for cushy offices with plush carpeting. Both see a variety of special-interest groups conspiring with government officials to maintain the wasteful status quo.
Both men also share an obsession about government sponsorship of social, biological and behavorial science research. Indeed, they each spend more time and pages detailing and deriding grants [in the $2,500 to $200,000 range] awarded by the National Science Foundation, the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and the National Institute of Mental Health than they do on anything else, including various multibullion-dollar programs that are denounced in passing.
Their books do differ in some respects. The Fleecing of Americ is more casual and humorous in tone and discusses the process by which special interests and government officials generate and maintain wasteful programs. Fat City is filled with grim details -- in fact, over 60 percent of the book is a listing of 100 seperate nonessential programs the author wants to axe -- the tip of the iceberg, he claims, of government waste.
While there is a substantial overlap in the areas Proxmire and Lambro want to eliminate, there are notable differences, too, reflecting differing political ideologies. Proxmire excoriates pork-barrel public-works projects and defence procurement contracts, condemning the cozy relationship between Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers on the one hand, and the Pentagon and defense contractors on the other. Lambro doesnpentagon and defense contractors on the other. Lambro doesn't even mention these; indeed, his discussion of defense is the only part of his book where he defends government spending. Lambro's argument with the Pentagon is not over wasteful arms expenditure, it is over the perks of military life -- subsidized commissaries, servants, recreation facilities and the like. On the other side, Lambro attacks the practice of "double dipping," whereby some people collect military pensions and government salaries at the same time; Proxmire doesn't deal with any government pension or welfare program. Neither author, incidentally, attacks Social Security, or its tie to the Consumer Price Index -- which has created the largest single increase in government spending in recent years.
These differences do serve one purpose: They underscore how much the concept of "waste) is the eye of the beholder. While some practices, program components or grants denounced in these books clearly constitute waste or a squandering of tax dollars -- such as officials flying first-class or on chartered government planes when cheaper and equally convenient transport is available -- most of the examples they produce are wasteful only in the sense that they offend the author's sense of priorities or ideology. Lambro proclaims a dislike for spending that benefits only a subset of the population, whether it is a "special interest" corporation or a "special interest" group. Now, much government-sponsered research on diseases, for example, benefits only a small subset of the population -- but Lambro presumably doesn-t quarrel with that "special interest" expense.
By failing even to mention certain programs or agencies, each author implies that he is willing to tolerate government spending, and attendant waste, in some areas -- namely, those to which he assigns a high priority. Lambro's recommendations to eliminate entirely, not merely scale down, the Federal Trade Commission, the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Federal Election Commission and the Ocupational Safety and Health Administration are put forth not because of the tax dollars to be saved, but because Lambro believes regulation to be abhorrent. Proxmire doesn't believe this, and you don't find a word on these regulatory agencies in The Fleecing of America . By way of further example, Lambro targets for extinction the $818,000 spent on the President's Council on Physical Fitness. But the California gentleman I saw on TV recently, brandishing his certificate of merit from Washington for establishing a Senior Olympics, might not consider this .000013 of the federal budget a waste. He might call it a lean and effective expenditure for boosting national morale.
If there is a problem in the area of National Science Foundation and NIMH grants -- and there surely is -- it is in the review process by which these agencies award grants. Decisions are made by relatively small and select groups of specialists who dominate their disciplines. Truly creative research, because it may violate conventional wisdom, is often rejected; an overly narrow focus prevails because a narrow subset of people makes the decisions. The internal setting of priorties of these agencies needs rethinking and reshaping.
But neither Proxmire nor Lombro discusses the grant-review process, or offers serious suggestions for reform. Instead, they simply ridicule study after study with funny titles [those with any kind of sexual connotations are especially vulnerable], which of course are quite common in biological and psychological research.
As a matter of fact, there is plenty of wasteful government-sponsored research on cancer and other diseases, as well as in areas like theoretical physics.
Proxmire does make a few, brief suggestions for "getting the budget's worth." Lambro's suggestions, as noted, are all in the form of wholesale elimination of programs and agencies. There is precious little attention paid in either case to changing the bureaucratic mechanisms for setting priorities or conducting effective oversight of programs once implemented. Admittedly, these are "process" topics, not designed to attract the general reader. But they are the true first step to reducing or eliminating waste in government.