A picture of Senator Tom Coburn
Thomas C.
Former Republican OK
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    Health Care

    by Former Senator Tom Coburn

    Posted on 2013-03-05

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    COBURN. Madam President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for the quorum call be rescinded.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

    Mr. COBURN. Madam President, I ask unanimous consent to speak as in morning business for such time as I may consume.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

    Mr. COBURN. Madam President, I also ask unanimous consent to use an oversized poster.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

    Government Waste and Duplication Mr. COBURN. Madam President, there has been a lot made of the sequester and the things that may or may not happen associated with it. Having spent the last 8 years looking at the Federal Government, I wrote the Secretary of Agriculture a letter this week outlining some things they could do that would not put in jeopardy food inspection and other things.

    In my 8 years of looking at the Department of Agriculture, there is extensive waste and duplication--the GAO has confirmed that--and those things should be cut first and eliminated and consolidated before staffs that are in critical positions are furloughed.

    The USDA currently has 120,000 employees, and they have over 16,000 offices. Just thinking about 16,000 offices ought to give us some pause. Why would any agency, no matter what their requirements, need that number of offices? The agency notes on their Web site that if they were a private company, they would be the sixth largest private company in America. That is how big the USDA is and how diffusive.

    Today, there is one USDA employee for every eight farmers--one USDA employee for every eight people employed in the farm area--or, overall, one USDA employee for every 18 farms, primary or otherwise. So weekend farmers have a USDA employee, and for regular farmers--people where it is their primary business--there is an employee for every eight of them.

    [[Page S1118]] At the end of 2012, USDA was sitting on $12 billion in unobligated Federal balances. In other words, that is money that is sitting in an account that has not been obligated to any purpose, sitting there waiting to be spent, where we have borrowed money--$12 billion--that they have not obligated.

    One of the things my staff has discovered is the USDA has upcoming conferences in terms of food tasting and wine tasting on the west coast. Now, in normal times there would not be anything wrong with Federal employees traveling to the west coast to both encourage and assess where we are in terms of some of our agricultural production. But I would think maybe this is one of the things the U.S. Department of Agriculture ought to cancel, given where we are and the threat that has been put out there in terms of food safety that has been announced in terms of layoffs or time off for Agriculture Department employees.

    Two USDA agencies--Rural Development and the Agricultural Marketing Service--are sponsoring the 26th annual California Small Farm Conference next week. In addition to speakers from the USDA agency, the gathering will feature field trips and tasting receptions. ``The Tasting Reception,'' according to their Web site, ``is the most well attended networking event of the conference and showcases the regional bounty from local farms, chefs, wineries, breweries, bakeries and other food purveyors.'' And ``special guest chefs will turn donated local agriculture products into tasty dishes to sample with exceptional local wines [provided].'' There is nothing wrong with that in normal times. There is plenty wrong with sending multiple employees to these types of conferences when we find ourselves in the position we find ourselves in today. These conferences, I am sure, are fun, interesting, and even educational getaways for USDA employees, but food inspecting rather than food tasting should be the USDA's priority at this time.

    Not just to pick on them, but the thing is Americans are not aware of how expansive and duplicative many of these programs are. In the domestic food assistance programs, as shown on this chart, this is what GAO shows us we have running: 18 different Federal programs across three Departments that spend $60 billion a year.

    According to the GAO, the availability of multiple programs with similar benefits helps ensure that those in need have access to nutritious food, but it also does increase the administrative costs of these programs.

    So while our goal is great, with the fact that we have this many programs doing essentially similar work with similar overheads, the GAO's recommendation was to do consolidation. Fifteen of these programs are run by the Department of Agriculture, ranging from SNAP to the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program and the Special Milk Program.

    According to the GAO, the effectiveness of 11 of these 18 programs is suspect. The reason it is suspect is nobody has done any oversight. No Member of Congress has done oversight on it--not the Budget Committee, not the Appropriations Committee, nor the Agriculture Committee.

    We also have inside the USDA research and education activities within the Rural Development programs that duplicate, predominately, existing programs of almost every other agency in the Federal Government. Let me say that again. Almost every one of these programs is duplicated in another agency of the Federal Government. In other words, we are layering. They both have the same goals, the same hope for outcomes. One is run by one agency. Here are the ones that are run just by the USDA.

    According to GAO, the Rural Development program administers 40 housing programs, business, community infrastructure and facility programs, as well as energy, health care, telecom programs, most of which duplicate the initiatives of other agencies, yet under the guise of serving exclusively rural citizens. Rural populations are not excluded from the other programs which are run with the same purpose that serve the general population. According to the Congressional Research Service, more than 88 programs administered by 16 different Federal agencies do the exact same thing these programs do. So we have 88 other programs from 16 different Federal agencies that are targeting rural economic development and needs.

    It is not hard to see why we are in trouble. The GAO has done the work we have asked them to do. The appropriate committees have not addressed any of these issues. They have not offered any amendments or bills to reduce, consolidate, or at least look at the outcomes and the cost-benefit ratio of having multiple layers of programs doing the same thing.

    Let me give you some questionable expenditures of what we have seen in the last year: a $54 million loan to build a casino; $1.6 million in loans for an asbestos removal company. It created hundreds of jobs in Guatemala and eventually went out of business and defaulted on the loan. There is $2.5 million in low-interest loans for the construction of the Smithsonian-style Birthplace of Country Music Cultural Heritage Center; a Tennessee county spent $10,000 of a Federal Rural Development grant to upgrade its tourism Web site; $12,500 went to Milk And Honey Soap, LLC for the marketing of soaps and lotions made from goat's milk and beeswax. These are private businesses, and we are taking taxpayer money, or we are borrowing the money, and we are subsidizing private individual businesses with grants.

    We also have within the USDA research and education activities: the National Institute of Food and Agriculture spent $706 million last year on research and education activities through more than 45 different programs. Meanwhile, their Agricultural Research Service has budgeted $1.1 billion annually and is home to an additional eight Federal research and educational activity programs.

    So what we have is layer after layer after layer--most of them well- intentioned. I am not denying that some of these are significant roles of Federal Government. But Congress is the problem because we have not addressed any of the recommendations the Government Accountability Office has given us in the two reports thus far, and the final report that will come out this year on overlap and duplication.

    Finally, I wish to talk about the USDA's Market Access Program. At the request of Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture spent more than $2 billion on the Market Access Program, which has directly subsidized the advertising of some of the most profitable companies and trade associations doing business overseas. So we are subsidizing companies such as Welch's, Sunkist, and Blue Diamond. The combined sales are greater than $2 billion a year, and we gave them $6 million last year to advertise their products.

    It is one thing to promote exports, but we do not do that with every other business in America. Not every business that has $2 billion in sales gets $6 million of the Federal taxpayers' money to promote their products overseas.

    So we have this disparity. I do not know if this is good policy or bad policy. What I do know is, it is discriminatory in terms of how we treat one group of businesses versus another group of businesses.

    Also receiving money from the taxpayers for private overseas advertising are trade groups such as Tyson Foods, Purina, Georgia Pacific, Jack Daniels, Hershey's, the California wine industry. They have domestic sales of $18 billion a year. They took in $7 million to promote their products overseas. The Cotton Council, on behalf of America, received $20 million from the Market Access Program and another $4.7 million from the USDA Foreign Market Development Program.

    So I come to the floor so the American people can see that we have plenty of ways to save money. What we have is an intransigence in Congress to do the hard work and also an intransigence by the administration to recognize the need to lead on eliminating these areas of duplication.

    Last week on the floor, I put a letter into the Record from the mayor of McAlester, OK. The Presiding Officer is a native of Oklahoma. She knows that town. He had a budget shortfall. He outlined the steps he went through with the help of the city manager to meet that. They did it in a way we would all be proud of. He gave us an example.

    Today I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record a letter [[Page S1119]] from the mayor of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in terms of what they have done.

    There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows: Board of Supervisors, County of Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, April 29, 2011.

    Hon. Tom Coburn, Senate Russell Office Building, U.S. Senate, Washington, DC.

    Dear Senator Coburn: I commend you and your colleagues with your bipartisan effort to reduce spending, taxes, debt and forge a more streamlined and ``right size'' a cost-effective federal government.

    While Los Angeles County's $23.5 billion budget pales in comparison to the United States budget, some of the successful reforms implemented by our County Board of Supervisors could result in similar results for the federal budget.

    Since 70-80% of the federal budget consists of personnel compensation, productivity and efficiency can be improved by consolidating and eliminating agencies, programs and personnel with duplicative or overlapping functions. Every federal department and agency should be evaluated, services prioritized, programs streamlined and all waste eliminated.

    Many federal agencies and departments have traditionally inflated their budgets with unfilled positions. Those that have been vacant for more than 12 months should be eliminated. Employees who have left their positions due to injury or illness need to be aggressively pursued to ensure that their conditions are legitimate.

    It is also vital to reform the civil service process and the public employee pension system. Some states are adopting forward-thinking reforms including reducing pension benefits for new hires and establishing a defined benefits program for current employees.

    These common sense solutions have allowed us to consistently balance our County budget and could serve as guidelines in your effort to ``right size'' the federal government.

    Best regards, Michael D. Antonovich, Mayor, Los Angeles County.

    Mr. COBURN. This was a letter I received in 2011 when we started raising the issue of duplication and making tough choices so that we could continue to provide benefits, we could continue to create and support a safety net for those who were truly dependent on it, but we do not waste money we do not have, spending it on things we do not absolutely need.

    I would put forward that when we have a multitude of programs and they overlap, we as Members of Congress do not have an excuse for not fixing that, because the things that are critical in people's lives eventually are going to suffer. Every dollar we spend on low-priority duplication, every dollar we spend that does not have a metric to say it is doing what it is should be doing is eventually going to be a dollar that is not there to support a food stamp recipient or a Medicaid recipient or housing for the indigent or care for the homeless or implementing Justice grant programs for policing and tribal courts.

    So it is not a matter of just solving the duplication problem, it is a matter of the arithmetic that is going to hit our country and that by delaying the time at which we decide we are going to address this multitude, which is now 1,400 programs through the first 2 years of reports from GAO and $367 billion of expenditures--and that does not count the other $800 billion that goes out of the Federal Government every year for grants that also address some of these same issues. So the time is now. Sequestration gives us a good time to start looking at priorities.

    One of the things I am thankful for is that we have tremendous Federal employees. We are starting to hear them speak up now: What can be cut? What is wasteful? They now feel the freedom to not be criticized because they are going to take a critical eye to the way American taxpayer dollars are being spent in their own agency. We are starting to hear from them: Here are things we are doing that we should not be doing. Here are things that are not a priority. Rather than lay off a meat inspector, maybe we ought to do this: ``Cut this, not that.'' You know, we ought to cut out wine tastings for Federal employees and keep the meat inspectors employed.

    There is no reason we need to furlough the first--with the waste in the Department of Agriculture, there is no reason that any significant program in the Department of Agriculture ought to suffer a furlough or layoff. There is no reason for it because there are billions of dollars there that are not wisely spent--well intended, not questioning motive, but poorly spent with poor return.

    When there are two programs doing the same thing, let me describe what happens on the beneficiary end of that. People do not know where there is a need. What the requirement is in one program is a different requirement in another program. In terms of duplicative grants, what we have is people who apply for a grant and get it from one arm of the Department of Agriculture and then go over here and make the same application from another arm of the Department of Agriculture, get the same grant, and then go to one of the other agencies that is doing the same thing and get another grant for the same thing--all of them not knowing that each has given a grant for the same purpose. So it is just not good business practices, it is not good management, and it is not good stewardship for the future of our country.

    So I would ask my colleagues to think about the great work the Government Accountability Office has done. They have done great work for us. We have failed to act on it. It is time we start acting. Come April 1, we will see the final report from the GAO where they now--over 4 years--will have looked at every program in the Federal Government. They are going to be able to give us a list. I have come out here with my big charts and shown the list of duplications. We are going to have three or four more charts that say the same thing. Think about how discouraging it is to the people at GAO who do all of this hard work and to the people who are trying to meet the needs in the individual agencies to know that we are actually duplicating things with poor results.

    We are not meeting our requirements under our oath. We are not meeting the moral requirements to be prudent with the American taxpayers' money. In the long run, the people who will suffer for it will be the very people we intend to help because if, in fact, we do not respond in a way that creates a positive vision for our country in terms of growth again and a positive vision in terms of responsible behavior by Congress, ultimately the arithmetic swallows us up.

    I will close with this: If you take today's budget, when the Federal Reserve starts unwinding the quantitative easing they have done--these very low, artificially low interest rates--or if something were to happen where the world economy would look at us and say: We do not think you are deserving of our AAA-minus rating--the difference in interest costs historically is about 3 to 4 percent. Let's take a conservative estimate; let's say it is 3. Our historical average is 5.83 percent, what we have borrowed money at historically over the last 50 years. We are borrowing at under 2 percent right now. Three percent times $17 trillion is $510 billion a year. We all lose when that happens. How do we lose? Because the dollar we are going to be spending on that additional interest cost is a dollar that is not going to help someone who is homeless, it is a dollar that is not going to provide food that needs to be provided for those who are depending upon us, and it is a dollar that is not going to go to match the FMAP for Medicaid. Consequently, the cuts we will make then will be much harsher than the cuts if we decide to do it proactively now.

    You do not have to have partisan disagreement about the goal of a program, but certainly we should be able to come together and say: We do not want duplication. We want to have good outcomes. We want to put metrics on it to measure it to see if it is working.

    There cannot be any disagreement on that. That is plain, good-old common horse sense. Yet there has been no action in 3\1/2\ years on any of these recommendations by the Government Accountability Office. Now, the administration has paid attention. I will give them credit. In a lot of areas where they have seen it, they have done what they can do, but we have not. I do not want the heritage of my time in the Senate to be when we were the Congresses that failed to meet the challenge.

    I believe our country can cheat history. If you look at history, it is not great for republics. They have all failed. But we have the opportunity to cheat history, and the way we do it is by getting off our rears and starting to [[Page S1120]] do the job we were sent up here to do, which is oversight and legislate the elimination of waste, abuse, and duplication. We can do that, but it requires leadership. It requires leadership on the part of Senator Reid, on the part of Senator McConnell, every committee chair, every ranking member. It requires leadership that we are going to do that.

    I am proud to say that Tom Carper, chairman of Homeland Security--we have a plan to oversight all of homeland security over the next 4 years, the whole thing, and the rest of the government as well because we do not really believe the rest of the committees are going to do it. So we are building our staffs for oversight to grab this information, to make cogent recommendations and legislation, where we can, that will actually address these problems. We are way past the starting point of when we should have begun. It is not too late, but it requires us to make a decision: Are we more interested in the parochial benefits of allowing programs that are not effective or duplicative to continue to run because we will not get any blowback or are we courageous enough to say that we are going to do what is right for the right reasons for the long-term well-being of our country? I believe that is the feeling of most of the Members of the Senate. I just think we need the leadership to call us back.

    I yield the floor, and I suggest the absence of a quorum.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. The clerk will call the roll.

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