Why We Fight: Washington Won’t Save Itself

In the Beltway, Republicans and Democrats alike refuse to address America’s growing fiscal problem. On Friday, The Washington Post explained in no uncertain terms how the alleged gridlock in Washington has actually been a bipartisan refusal to address America’s real spending problems.

The problems are numerous. They include:

Mandatory spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid:

These “mandatory spending” programs are very large, accounting for about 60 percent of federal spending. Congress doesn’t set their spending every year. Instead, when need goes up, spending goes up. And, in the recession, need went up.

Even after six paralyzing budget showdowns, this “mandatory” spending has fallen by less than 1 percent….

“We’re nowhere. I mean, the sad reality is that we’re nowhere” toward taming those “mandatory” costs, said Gordon Adams, a budget official in the Clinton administration and now a fellow at the Stimson Center.

And now, in a capital burned by six crises, a deal to cut these big-ticket programs seems less likely than ever. “We’ve gotten further away from anything that will bring us to a ‘grand bargain’ right now,” Adams said.

Immoral spending known as “pork”:

But it is not only the big cuts that Congress has struggled with. It has also found it hard to break several little bad habits that made government fat in the first place. One is pork, the habit of using taxpayer money for a legislator’s pet cause.

Today, its power appears to be stronger even than death.

That’s clear from the story of the Robert C. Byrd Highway, a decades-old road project in West Virginia that had received earmarked funds for years from Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), the ­longest-serving senator in history, who died in 2010.

The highway has been maligned as a wasteful road to nowhere. But, now, it has outlived earmarks. It has even outlived Byrd.

This year, with continued support from Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) the highway got $40 million in federal money. It will need about that much every year, state officials say, until it’s finished in 2035.

The unwillingness to cut programs that were initially “temporary”:

This Congress has also indulged in the habit of letting “temporary” giveaways become effectively permanent. A prime example is the Essential Air Service, a $240 million program that subsidizes flights to 161 small airports.

It was supposed to die in 25 years ago 1988. It didn’t.

Passengers retrieve their bags after their United Express Saab 340B flight arrived in August 2011 at the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport. It is one of 161 airports to benefit from the Essential Air Service, a $240 million program that subsidizes flights to rural airports. It was supposed to end in 1988 but has been renewed repeatedly. (Michael Reilly/Harrisonburg, Va., Daily News-Record via Associated Press)

Congress has renewed the program, again and again. Now it subsidizes flights to places such as tiny Glendive, Mont., where the government pays for a 19-seat aircraft to visit twice a day.

On average, two people get on each day. The subsidy works out to $836 for each of their tickets.

“If we can’t cut this, we can’t cut anything,” said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), who sponsored an attempt to kill the program last summer.

They can’t cut this.

Regulations are enormous:

Another way to measure the government’s size is by the length of its rule book, the Code of Federal Regulations. It is now as long as 95 King James Bibles.

Unused federal buildings combine with duplication to create a huge mess – 399,000 buildings owned by the federal government, and a bipartisan love of waste and duplication:

“A little overlap and a little duplication may not be bad,” said Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), whose appropriations subcommittee considered the White House plan. Wolf said the White House didn’t have good data on which of the 226 worked and which didn’t.

So why take the risk of cutting a good one?

“I would rather err on the side of not doing something that puts us behind” other countries, Wolf said. Other legislators worried about institutions back home — museums, schools, hospitals — which got grants from this maze of overlapping programs. If it got simpler, they might get nothing.

So the House said no. The Senate did, too. The idea fizzled.

This is why we fight. This is why we sacrifice financial and personal health to save our country. Because Washington will never, ever do it on its own.