2020 has revealed the strange paradoxes of our time. We can develop a vaccine for a global pandemic in less than a year, but one little hiccup in the supply chain, and it’s easier to find water in the Sahara than to find toilet paper at Safeway.
This year has also provided ample time for self-reflection: What are we getting wrong, and how can we excel at what we are doing well? Successful people ask themselves that question routinely. Shouldn’t our government ask itself the same thing?
The federal budget in 2019, the last non-pandemic fiscal year, was $4.4 trillion. Putting that in perspective, just 1 trillion $1 bills stacked would be about 68,000 miles tall, or one-third of the distance to the moon. The government thanks you for your service.
So what are you getting for your money? How many government programs are there? No one knows. Cars can parallel park themselves, but no one has forced the federal government to compile and maintain a comprehensive list of federal programs and their outcomes. Why? The system always protects itself.
The Government Performance and Results Modernization Act of 2010 required a single, comprehensive list of federal programs, with a due date of October 2012. The act neglected to define the term “program,” however, and agencies have skirted or struggled with the requirements ever since.
In 2011, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and then-Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., introduced the Taxpayers Right-to-Know Act to rectify the issue. The bill defined the term “program” and required every agency to report a complete list of their programs and outcomes.
Over the past nine years, the bill has enjoyed near-unanimous bipartisan support in both chambers — with the exception of two members who have doggedly held up its passage in the Senate: Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. At one point, after Lankford replaced Coburn in the Senate, Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Lankford even made 27 changes to the bill to mollify Schumer, yet he maintained his hold.
The government, which writes our laws and creates programs, for nine years has been unable to define the word “program.” To quote “Office Space,” “What would you say you do here?” It’s like a Kardashian not being able to define the term “publicity stunt.” Why wouldn’t Schumer want Americans to know how many programs the government is running? We should all want to know.
While not ideal, after years of obstruction, the Taxpayer Right-to-Know Act was added to the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed both chambers last week. For his tireless efforts, Schumer isn’t walking away empty-handed. He has been awarded Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst’s coveted monthly Squeal Award. Ernst said:
We need to increase transparency and allow more scrutiny of these government projects. The Taxpayer Right to Know Act would require a public report card listing every federal program along with regular updates on the costs and performance outcomes of each. … [T]his bipartisan bill has been held up for YEARS by a single senator, Chuck Schumer of New York. I am awarding my December 2020 Squeal Award to the Democratic Leader of the Senate for his one-man effort to hide how the government spends your tax dollars.
Passage of the Taxpayer Right-to-Know Act will give citizens the information they deserve about programs funded with their money. For example, the city of Atlanta received a $4 million federal grant for a jobs training program, which was supposed to result in 225 jobs. Instead, the program placed one single individual. That’s $4 million for one job.
In Hawaii, the Department of Housing and Urban Development used grants to purchase property at millions of dollars above market value. Then, instead of helping residents, rent for some people actually went up, while other units sat vacant. Federal tax dollars increased housing prices for people they were supposed to be helping.
Throwing money at a problem is not always the answer. Oversight, transparency, and sunshine can give you more answers and solve more problems when your budget is north of $4 trillion.
So call it metrics, return on investment, good business practice — call it whatever you want. It’s both reasonable and necessary that your government be accountable for its spending of your tax dollars. When asked how the government is utilizing its resources, the answer “We don’t know” is simply unacceptable.
While 2020 hasn’t delivered on those hoverboards yet, at least the federal budget will be organized more like our iPhone storage than that “box of cords” every adult has tucked somewhere in his house.