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Common Cents

Dirty Work

Ralph Murphy

(9/11/2015) Billing to citizens for government services is prehistoric to shared interests of community, but it implies broad reward or return on investment. The American Constitution Article 1 allows for a Treasury to store government funds, but makes clear the issue can only be spent "by law" or legislative standard. At present that requires Congressional action which is formulated and promoted by varied committees and sub committees on the Hill. The number fluctuates annually to function need but as of the current Congress there are about 200 operating in Washington.

At issue now is the effectiveness, objective and effect of budget related committees affording "discretionary" and "mandatory" funding and program implement for varied government programs. Mandatory programs are administered by the Senate Finance Committee and its House equivalent Ways and Means Committee. Mandatory programs generally involve a direct and predictable tax and involve transfer payments such as Social Security or Medicare. Discretionary programs are far less structured to objective, accountable funding and oversight. They usually require a one year review to program need but are administered by the standing House Committee on Appropriations and the Senate Committee on Appropriations.

The mandatory programs may require some review to issue but at current budget concern are no where near as contentious to billing as the discretionary ones. They are the result of often arduous legislative debate and are very difficult to alter once the law is approved. While problematic and probably needing more systemic review the programs are predictable to billing and rarely threaten to delay or shut down the government.

Discretionary programs are a different matter. They don't compete to billing as politicians openly admit to legislative floor acceptance their bills are tied to non related others for political passage. It has proven costly in debt issue and tax result as programs which surely would have been curtailed of their own merits continue in support of the non related bills. Congress is allowed to do that in "Omnibus Spending" which formally packages the laws into joint action.

Omnibus spending is problematic in furthering programs which may have been dropped per lack of need. It is, however, a policy tool accompanied by "transfers" of cash between non related subcommittee accounts to afford program survival often based on purely political objectives. At present there are 12 Appropriations subcommittees reflecting 12 bills and 12 accounts for "regular Appropriations bills". They are funded by expected billing to conventional tax and often contentious debt in a fiscal year. With overcharge a Continuing Resolution (CR) can be enacted for project extension to the next fiscal year. Supplemental funding can also be provided to assure continued regular Appropriations bill continuance with unexpected funding shortfall.

The problem at present is the lack of competition between bills to reflect the want and need projected to funding. The system divorces the 12 accounts and debate to House and Senate subcommittees (they're roughly identical) but again combines them for passage either internal or for the President's approval. The legislation strays from tax funding to debt issue only seriously debated if the revenue can't be sourced and delay in actual governing an issue. It routinely is, the programs don't compete to affect, and the resultant national debt has simply exploded.

Appropriations committees include to note Agriculture, Defense, Homeland Security, and Labor Health and Human Services among 8 others. The committees issue "authorizations bills" to implement the varied program need and "appropriations bills" to fund them. At present defense spending receives the largest outlay to discretionary spending, a bill arrangement which hasn't been vetoed out of committee request since the Eisenhower administration in the early 1960's.

The Defense budget last year was approved at about $612 billion dollars. An additional cost in the Overseas Contingency Fund (OCO) was $65.8 billion for further incidental expenses. To put the billing in perspective a Nimitz class aircraft carrier costs about $4.5 billion (2007 dollars) to produce. There are 10 such craft in the United States Navy of 19 active duty carriers. The annual defense bill would pay for about 152 new ones each year. Somethings badly wrong and the system has to be challenged. The producers can be paid, the cost of the craft again at most is about $45 billion for the 10. It appears an arbitrary and gratuitous middleman network is benefitting to a staggering and excessive profit margin which threatens government shutdown to lack of funds for services of dubious need. They have to be sourced and neutralized.

There also has to be competition between the appropriations accounts and more transparent scrutiny to their purpose and cost. When the project is approved following debate to merit to conventional sourcing of fund allocation it should go forward but scrutinized with effective review. If one is needed but the funding not available the Treasury may be sought but the deals inter account have to end and debt issued to fund it only as last resort with specific repayment sourced and verified. If one account can't be funded the other 11 in the current system can move forward and the government shut down or sequester avoided as they aren't tied now permitted to omnibus legislation.

The key is justification of project need whether to mandatory or discretionary funding programs at source of broad Congressional initiative. That can be varied to include public provision such as media or letters, but should permit of note internal initiatives of legislators as well. Each account representative should sell the program, make it competitive relative to options and afford the product within billing. If that can't be done without money transfers from ostensibly competing accounts and interests the program is likely not needed and shouldn't be allowed to delay or even drop the federal government.

Investigations internal and executive must source the overcharge, legislation allow accounts to compete for funds, but sell the program publicly and private from asset based tax issue and not illusory debt. The government can then move forward and fulfill its role to service and need envisioned in the Constitution.

Ralph Murphy is a former member of the CIA Headquarters Staff in Langley, VA.

Read past editions of Ralph Murphy's Common Cents