"We have a lot of year-end money left and we need your help to spend it." I had been at the Food and Drug Administration for just two months, in September 1980, when that request came to me from an office manager. If we didn't spend it, I was told, the money would be turned back in to the Treasury and we would end up getting our budget cut.
Given our nation's fiscal situation 37 years later, you would think this kind of wasteful spending would be a thing of the past -- and you'd be wrong. It only accounts for a small part of our annual deficit, but every member of Congress who is concerned about our mounting debt ought to be outraged.
"What should I spend it on?" I asked at the time.
"Anything really, as long as it is somehow work-related." Texas Instruments had a fancy new calculator, so I ordered one with lots of plug-ins and mathematical functions -- including some I knew I would never use -- at additional cost.
But I was helping out. Today, I wonder how much this backwards thinking has cost us over time.
My colleague Jason Fichtner recently testified before the Senate on wasteful spending. His research shows that in the last month of the fiscal year between 2003 and 2015, agencies spent double what they would normally spend in an average month. He suggested that agencies be allowed to "rollover" some of their excess funds to remove this incentive
The National Bureau of Economic Research, meanwhile, says that federal agencies spend an average of 4.9 times more in the last week of the fiscal year than they do during a normal week.
This is just one more creature in the swamp that two leading presidential candidates -- Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump -- agreed needs to be drained. Of course, as transparency advocate Adam Andrzejewksi points out, Trump's office alone spent $21.8 million in the last week of fiscal 2017, more than three times what President Barack Obama's office spent to close out 2016.
Some expenditures during that week include $83.4 million on government furniture and $18.6 million on public relations. The Department of State spent more than $1 million on clothing and $79,000 on booze for 10 American embassies.
Sen. Rand Paul has a favorite example: the Department of Veterans Affairs spending $300,000 on 300 unusable televisions now sitting in storage. His solution: reward employees for saving the government money and turning it back in. This makes sense. But that person will also be the least-liked employee in an entire agency if it leads to a budget cut.
Paul and others deserve credit for targeting agency waste. But if we're scrutinizing the agencies, why stop there? Why not ask what we get for the nearly $70 billion America collectively spends on agency regulatory budgets, and the trillions we spend to comply with federal regulations?
Every year the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 requires agencies to produce performance plans and reports. When is the last time that we heard that one failed in its mission? Two years ago the Government Accounting Office found that agencies' use of performance information did not improve between 2007 and 2013, even though this was supposed to be addressed by a 2010 modernization of the law.
Presidents have tried to make agencies work more effectively, most notably President George W. Bush through the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART). The idea was to tie agency funding to performance. It didn't work, largely because Congress doesn't seem to care much about agency performance. The public doesn't really pay attention, so no one gets voted into or out of office for failing to oversee federal agencies.
It makes for fun press to read about wasteful year-end expenditures, but the bigger waste is that agencies, somewhat immune from congressional or public scrutiny, aren't fully accountable for solving the problems we trust them to handle.
If we could truly hold them accountable, we could worry a lot less about them wasting a few million more on booze and furniture.