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Chump Change

Oct 19, 2008
We know we are talking in billions and trillions these days—an $850 billion bailout for the financial industry; a $10 trillion national debt. A few millions must seem like chump change. But when Americans are struggling on $6.55 an hour (the current minimum wage), government waste of even $30 million rises to the level of a national disgrace and we should be howling to the hills about it.

This is how much the Government Accounting Office (GAO) found the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) wasted in a few short months in Mississippi alone through ineffective oversight of a small portion of the contracts given out to deal with the Katrina disaster. We can only wonder in amazement how much of our money was wasted overall.

After four firms were paid billions of dollars to set up trailer sites in the wake of Katrina, through contracts awarded on a sole source, noncompetitive basis, the outcry was so great that FEMA solicited new bids for maintenance and deactivation of mobile homes and for site maintenance. These contracts are the ones the GAO investigated and found were responsible for $30 million in wasteful and improper or potentially fraudulent payments to the contractors over an eight-month period from June 2006 to January 2007.

Their report, Hurricane Katrina: Ineffective FEMA Oversight of Housing Maintenance Contracts in Mississippi Resulted in Millions of Dollars of Waste and Potential Fraud (.pdf) outlines in agonizing detail the failure of this “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva a job” agency to perform its role with anything like proper attention to its responsibilities to its employer—us. However, finally, it is the employer’s responsibility to prevent these abuses. Which of our representatives is most likely to do so?

McCain speaks of an across-the-board spending freeze for the federal government—an impossible aim if were even desirable, as anyone over the age of 14 must know. Obama speaks of a careful examination of each line item of the national budget, eliminating programs that don’t work and bolstering those that do. Neither speaks to the kind of regulatory oversight we must bring to bear on all levels of government spending. It is way too late when the GAO brings out its reports. By then, the money is irretrievably lost. Government expenditures must be determined to be legitimate at a point before the check is cut, and to do that will require the sort of government restructuring that only Nader is talking of, and he is not going to be elected.

The next four years will be a time of building, perhaps under a more or less benign and right-thinking Obama administration, perhaps under a chaotic, irascible, and frankly terrifying McCain administration. But build we must, from the grassroots up through all levels of our self-governance.

Strap on your toolbelt, and let’s get cracking.
tags: Governance | Working Together

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