Bud­get hawks squawk, but big spenders keep dig­ging deficits

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY JAMES VAR­NEY

The end­less river of red ink forecast for fed­eral spend­ing would lead one to be­lieve bud­get hawks are an en­dan­gered species.

But they’re still out there, toil­ing to draw at­ten­tion to a prob­lem that is get­ting worse — yet also get­ting al­most no at­ten­tion among the pol­i­cy­mak­ers who could change things.

“Both par­ties are en­gaged in a war on math that math will even­tu­ally win,” said Adam An­drze­jew­ski, who runs OpenTheBoo­ks, a non­profit ded­i­cated to trans­parency in gov­ern­ment spend­ing. “We’re not go­ing to tire or de­spair in our quest to con­vince elected of­fi­cials that the math and their own con­stituents are right.”

The quest can be un­for­giv­ing when they look at the num­bers and won­der why oth­ers aren’t as out­raged.

Num­bers re­leased by the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice show deficits are poised to soar past $1 tril­lion a year soon and re­main there for the fore­see­able fu­ture. Debt — the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of those deficits — will top the record, from World War II, in the 2030s.

The CBO’s au­di­ence, Congress, met the num­bers with a shrug.

Repub­li­cans want to spend more on de­fense, and Democrats want to spend more on ev­ery­thing else. On the cam­paign trail, Pres­i­dent Trump rarely if ever men­tions debt or the deficit, and the Demo­cratic field is com­pet­ing in a give­away sweep­stakes on col­lege, health care, stu­dent loans and more.

“I can’t think of a time like this, where not just the bud­get out­look is bad but the lack of at­ten­tion is even worse,” said Bob Bixby, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Con­cord Coali­tion who has al­most three decades in the bud­get watch­dog busi­ness. “It is dis­heart­en­ing, al­though we have seen some­thing of an in­crease in what we call ‘fis­cal look­outs’ among peo­ple who have con­tacted us to say, ‘You guys are still around?’”

Con­cord is in­deed still around, and it has been joined by a host of other watch­dogs ea­ger to call out Wash­ing­ton’s tax­ing and spend­ing habits.

Mr. An­drze­jew­ski, 49, has been at­tracted to fis­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity since el­e­men­tary school when his fa­ther, a con­ser­va­tive Demo­crat, ran for the Illi­nois leg­is­la­ture on that is­sue. Though his fa­ther’s bids were un­suc­cess­ful, “the no­bil­ity of pub­lic ser­vice was in­stilled in me at a young age,” he said.

That led him in 2011 to OpenTheBoo­ks, the brain­child of for­mer Sen. Tom Coburn, a Repub­li­can whose motto is “Every dime. On­line. In real time.”

Mr. Coburn and OpenTheBoo­ks have had real suc­cess, Mr. An­drze­jew­ski said. He pointed to leg­isla­tive ac­com­plish­ments such as the ban on ear­marks, which is still hold­ing.

But spot­lights like those that OpenTheBoo­ks and the Con­cord Coali­tion try to shine on spend­ing can be­come obscured in the fog of po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns promis­ing money for health care, col­lege and other ex­penses.

The re­searchers of­fer var­i­ous rea­sons for the seem­ing non­cha­lance.

The no­tion that the gov­ern­ment seems too big to fail is one; his­tor­i­cally low in­ter­est rates is an­other. Al­though the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion flooded the money sup­ply with bil­lions of dol­lars through “quan­ti­ta­tive eas­ing,” the kind of in­fla­tion­ary boomerang such easy money would cause the­o­ret­i­cally hasn’t ma­te­ri­al­ized.

“The na­tional debt has topped $22 tril­lion, and the fact it doesn’t scare the fi­nan­cial mar­kets is un­be­liev­able, re­mark­able,” said Chris Ed­wards, a tax and bud­get pol­icy an­a­lyst at the lib­er­tar­ian Cato In­sti­tute think tank and the edi­tor of its Down­siz­ingGovern­ment. org web­site.

“If you go back and look at the notes and speeches from Carter, Rea­gan — the re­flected fear that if you ran deficits, it was go­ing to raise in­ter­est rates, mort­gages, and that was bad pol­i­tics,” he said. “But now there doesn’t seem to be any short-term po­lit­i­cal pain for deficits, and I don’t know what the so­lu­tion to that is.”

Mr. Bixby also re­flected on the bud­get hawks’ glory days, a time to­ward the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s in which bud­get con­cerns were bi­par­ti­san is­sues and made head­lines.

“We do get to­gether and scratch our heads about it all,” Mr. Ed­wards said. “It’s very dis­heart­en­ing. The Democrats, well, and the GOP doesn’t be­lieve in fis­cal re­straint any­more. It’s a philo­soph­i­cal change; they aren’t in­spired by Rea­gan.”

De­spite the seem­ingly bleak land­scape, Mr. An­drze­jew­ski and his co­horts are wear­ing a brave face.

From his Chicago head­quar­ters, Mr. An­drze­jew­ski has is­sued a flurry of re­ports on tax­payer spend­ing, such as the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs’ $20 mil­lion pur­chase of lux­ury art and more than $40 bil­lion fun­neled to Ivy League schools from 2011 to 2017.

In the process, OpenTheBoo­ks has be­come the world’s largest pri­vate data­base of pub­lic sec­tor ex­pen­di­tures.

“We’ve cap­tured 5 bil­lion in­di­vid­ual gov­ern­ment spend­ing trans­ac­tions, in­clud­ing all dis­closed fed­eral spend­ing since 2001; 49 of 50 state check­books; and 22 mil­lion pub­lic employee salary and pen­sion records from 60,000 pub­lic bod­ies across Amer­ica,” he told The Wash­ing­ton Times.

All of that leaves Mr. An­drze­jweski con­fi­dent that, at some point, the moun­tains of ev­i­dence will move law­mak­ers in a more fis­cally re­spon­si­ble di­rec­tion.

“In­tegrity. Laser fo­cus. Tenac­ity. Bold­ness. Ex­e­cu­tion,” he said when asked which ad­jec­tives he would use to de­scribe his daily at­ti­tude.

“Our fight for good gov­ern­ment first started in Illi­nois, the Su­per Bowl of cor­rup­tion,” he said. “Writ large, we now re­al­ize that the en­tire coun­try is in jeop­ardy.”

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