What to Cut? Gov’t finds wasteful spending hard to shake

In the realm of government excesses, it's hard to top a series of grants recently awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities that have drawn the scrutiny of Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.

Sessions wrote acting NEH Director Carol Watson this week asking why it awarded $25,000 for a study entitled, "What is the Good Life and How Do I Live It?"; $23,390 for a study entitled, "Why are Bad People Bad?"; and $24,990 for yet another study called, "What is a Monster?"

"In the current fiscal environment, I question the appropriateness of such grants," Sessions wrote, "and believe the public would benefit from a fulsome explanation of the entire [grant] review process."

If history is a gauge, Sessions may be disappointed with the answer.

Earlier this month, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., vented on the Senate floor about government waste.

"I've actually spent the last nine years oversighting almost every segment of the federal government, and none of us can be proud the way we spend the money," he lamented.

Why does wasteful spending continue?

It may be the unalterable process of bureaucracy, itself.

That's the conclusion drawn by Cyril Northcote Parkinson, who in the 1950's while working in Britain’s Colonial Office became frustrated as the office grew bigger and bigger, while Britain's Colonial Empire grew smaller and smaller. He sought a scientific explanation for the expansion and came up with, "Parkinson’s Law."

It postulates:
1) An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals.
2) Officials make work for each other.  
3) Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

Parkinson's Law seems an apt explanation for how a thousand-page ObamaCare bill can spawn 20,000 pages of regulations.

To his credit, the man who's taking more flak than any for the troubled ObamaCare rollout -- Obama himself -- has spearheaded some efforts aimed at agency consolidation. Last January in a White House ceremony  he launched a  plan to shrink government.

He sought authority from Congress to combine the Small Business Administration and five other small departments into a single one that would take the place of the Commerce Department. "No business or nonprofit leader would allow this kind of duplication or unnecessary complexity in their operation," Obama said at the time. "You wouldn't do it when you're thinking about your businesses, so why is it O.K. for our government?"

But Republicans balked, fearing a power grab.

Congress's own investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, has undertaken three studies since 2010 that document billions of dollars in federal agency waste, overlap and duplication. "What we try to do is focus on what those instances are, to shine  a light on it, to hopefully get the attention of the agencies, " said Orice Williams Brown, GAO's Managing Director of Financial Markets and Community Investment.

But GAO has no enforcement power, and Congress' interest in cracking down on waste is tepid. "Members of Congress have very little incentive to make government programs more efficient because each committee has jurisdiction over its own set of programs," said Tom Schatz of Citizens Against Government Waste." The next committee may have several of the same programs as with the next committee, so it's a stove pipe mentality," he says.

In his Senate floor speech earlier this month, Coburn sounded almost like a defeated man. "I think we have failed to do our job, and that's not a Republican and Democrat thing. That's us. That's not a partisan statement,” he said.

As the White House undertakes a high-tech "surge" of tech workers to tackle the ObamaCare rollout, the words of economist Milton Friedman are resonating somewhere. "Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program,” he said.