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Don't ask, don't tell federal spending

Published on May 18, 2012 3:01AM

Last changed on June 15, 2012 8:30AM

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

Rik Dalvit/For the Capital Press

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When it comes to tracking federal spending, the Obama administration and Congress have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Take, for example, a recent basic accounting exercise undertaken by the Government Accountability Office. Some poor soul there was given a simple task: Find out how much money the federal government had paid to the lawyers who sued over endangered species regulations.

The answer: "We don't know."

Really. The federal government doesn't track such unimportant numbers, the GAO found, because Congress told it not to. The law requiring such reporting was repealed in 1995.

Doesn't an enterprising accountant in the bowels of the Department of the Interior, which is the designated target for most lawsuits based on the Endangered Species Act, track payments? Or the USDA, whose U.S. Forest Service also finds itself pummeled in court over the vagaries of the ESA? Or the Treasury Department?


Most of those departments' many divisions do not account for spending on attorney fees, the GAO determined.

The GAO did find that about $44.5 million was paid to opposing attorneys from Treasury and USDA accounts between 2001 and 2010.

But that's also only a small fraction of the true amount, according to an attorney who has tracked the spending independently through court documents.

The total is more than $4.7 billion, Karen Budd-Falen said. And that's just for the period between 2003 and 2007.

Environmental organizations work the system, too. They use tactics such as "bio-blitzes" to overwhelm the federal government with petitions that require responses by a set deadline. In one four-year period, a handful of environmental groups petitioned to protect more than 1,230 species under the ESA, according to a New York Times article. Each petition has a 90-day deadline for a response. The groups know meeting those deadlines is impossible, so they sue and easily win the cases and rake in their legal fees.

In their defense, environmental groups say the money isn't important to their cause. That being the case, maybe Congress should exclude them or ask for the money back.

Imagine for a moment that the federal government is a business. Let's call it Uncle Sam Inc.

Imagine, too, that an auditor from the Internal Revenue Service contacts Uncle Sam Inc.'s accounting department and asks how much money was paid out in attorney fees.

And imagine that the accounting department answered: "Don't know, don't care. We were told not to track it."

Now imagine the IRS asking a few more questions, such as which federal penitentiary the CEO would like as a new residence.

This is today's federal government. Not only does it specifically not track where each dollar goes, its overlords instruct the accountants not to do their jobs.

Mind you, this is a government that borrows 33 cents for each dollar it spends.

A $15 trillion debt? No problem, we are told by those who say they know better.

Billions of dollars missing from federal agencies? Not to worry, they assure us.

But in the decades ahead, when our children and grandchildren are still paying for this mess, we'll have crippled what was once the greatest nation on earth.

We all know this system is broke.

Without change, our government will be, too.


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