While the federal government dishes out voter-friendly tax cuts and goes on spending sprees abroad, the country's top accountant says we're racing toward a fiscal crisis. Who will bear the brunt? You. Meet your new best friends in Washington: the Government Accountability Office.
Trillions, plural. Trillions of dollars-between two and three, actually. That's how much Congress has spent annually since the Bush administration set up shop in the White House and started writing checks. Given how little we know about certain activities we aren't meant to know about, it's hard to get even the slightest grasp on how much of those trillions are flushed down our federal toilet, which is presumably outfitted with one of Reagan's fabled $640 toilet seats.If anyone can get a grip on it, though, it's the nation's top accountant, David Walker, 56, the GAO's comptroller general, whose job it is to audit, oversee, and report on every penny Congress spends. So incensed is he by the numbers that he's mobilized a national campaign to sound the alarm. In fact, he is the alarm."What we have here is a fiscal cancer," says Walker, referring to America's bloated national debt and deficit. Perched on a couch in his office, Walker-despite the urgency of his message-has the smooth tone of a man whose frankness buttresses his professional objectivity. "The question is, What are we going to do to treat it? Are we going to change our behavior? Are we going to engage in some meaningful treatments in order to create a more positive future and be the first republic to stand the test of time? Or are we just going to continue the status quo?"With the costs of Medicare and Social Security about to skyrocket in light of the coming era of Baby Boomer retirement, the question Walker raises is not whether we'll need to raise taxes and cut spending, but where and by how much. According to GAO estimates, at the current rate of spending, by 2040, the government will be able to do little more than pay interest on the federal debt; spending on entitlement programs-Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid-will by then consume all federal government revenues. By 2051, the economy could be in ruins. It's a simple equation: The bigger the debt, the slower the economy grows; the slower the economy grows, the slower wages climb. Add reduced retirement benefits and higher payroll taxes, and the outlook is, in a word, bleak. "That is … going to affect [Americans] in a very real, pocketbook kind of way," Walker told the Senate Budget Committee in January."People are shocked when they hear the numbers. Absolutely shocked," says Walker, who is spending a good part of his time on the road explaining those numbers. Since September, 2005, he has been headlining the Fiscal Wake-Up Tour, the hottest ticket in public finance and fiscal responsibility on the face of the planet, engaging the public in a realistic dialogue about the United States's financial future, with the hope of fostering an understanding of the dire path we're on and what needs to be done to change course.As head of the GAO, Walker works in downtown D.C., in the office headquarters, a federal building largely indistinguishable from those surrounding it. A paragon of bureaucracy, it has chrome and wood-grain accents in the lobby, giving it a decidedly 1940s feel, a sense of a proud world war victor's monument to civil-service efficiency. Like every other building in the area, it was built so as not to eclipse the Washington Monument in height, sprawling horizontally rather than vertically. From where Walker is sitting, he says he can already see America speeding toward a national crisis."We're in the transparency, performance, and accountability business," he says of the GAO. "We're in the business to state the facts and speak the truth, and not just do oversight, but provide insight and foresight to try to help others to see the way forward." That means that the GAO's reports are open for partisan interpretation. A chief proponent of oversight, Representative Henry Waxman, Democrat of California, has used GAO reports to launch investigations into nearly every nook and cranny of the executive branch, including alleged improprieties by the Environmental Protection Agency (for its 2005 reversal of a statement that said an energy facility off the coast of California needed to meet clean-air standards) and the State Department (the allegedly false claim regarding Saddam Hussein's government's alleged purchase of uranium from Niger). Waxman is also looking into the White House's "loss" of emails that related to contacts with the Department of Justice regarding the recent firings of U.S. Attorneys.Today, Waxman is animated, talking with me in a room in the Capitol where lobbyists and politicians gather around chestnut tables to do business as the latter make their way to and from their voting duties on the adjacent House floor. "The work done by [the GAO] points us in the direction where our oversight is most needed," he says. "In addition to looking at waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer dollars, I think it's important for us to look at government agencies and whether they're serving the public purposes for which they were created, or whether they're becoming dominated by politics or becoming ineffective for other reasons.""When one party controls the Senate, the House, and the White House-and it really doesn't make any difference what party it is-that's generally not good for transparency, accountability, and fiscal responsibility," says Walker. But with Democrats taking control of both chambers of Congress after six years of Republican leadership and ever-surfacing misdeeds, oversight has quickly become a buzzword on Capitol Hill. The freshman Democratic senator Claire McCaskill, Missouri's former state auditor, told the Kansas City Star upon her election that the "GAO is going to love me as a senator" and vowed to have the "GAO's products permeate everything I do in my job." Senator Joe Lieberman, an Independent from Connecticut, at a GAO press conference in February, spoke of how a hearing on Hurricane Katrina recovery led him to see just how concerned the American people are with accountability: "None of the witnesses asked for more money. They all wanted to talk about how the money there is being spent."More recently, Congress has put additional pressure on the inspectors general-the internal auditors of executive agencies-to ramp up their efforts, especially in light of findings such as the Department of the Interior's discovery that its Minerals Management Service might end up forfeiting more than $7 billion in royalties from oil companies over the next five years due to errors in leases signed in the 1990s, despite having discovered those errors in 2000.
|The government is owned by the people, and the people should know what their government is doing.|
|If something doesn't change, Generation X and Generation Y, and ultimately their kids and grandkids, will have to pay off this [national debt]-with compounded interest. I don't think that's right, and I'm trying to make sure that we're doing something about it.|