One of the few good things to come out of the Congress last fall was legislation that would modernize financial accounting in the federal government by establishing a CFO for the United States.
Enactment of the Chief Financial Officers Act was spearheaded by the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (of which I am president), the Financial Executives Institute and other such groups.It provides for a deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, a controller at the head of a new Office of Federal Financial Management, and counterpart CFOs or controllers at the 23 principal agencies. It also requires a five-year financial management plan, financial statements for agency trust funds and commercial functions, and regular financial audits of agencies and government corporations.
Given the enormous size and complexity of the federal budget, a measure like this would seem like simple common sense. Most Americans would probably be shocked to learn that the federal government has been operating without such minimal accounting structures. This is especially true in light of the scandals of waste and abuse that have surfaced in recent years.
The $8 billion scandal at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, for example, can be traced in part to the existence of more than 60 separate accounting systems at HUD. As one of his first steps to prevent future abuse, HUD Secretary Jack Kemp appointed a CFO for the department.
Unfortunately, as is often the case in Washington, D.C., what's good for the taxpayer is bad for the power base of Washington bureaucrats and politicians. Rep. Jamie Whitten, D-Miss., powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has so much influence at the Department of Agriculture that the Washington Post described him as "the `shadow' secretary of agriculture." Apparently some of Whitten's buddies at USDA told him they didn't want anyone looking over their shoulders as they administered his pork barrel empire within the department. In a power play aimed at getting his way at Agriculture, Whitten is trying to attach riders to every appropriation bill that would prevent any agency from using money in its appropriation to fund a CFO position.
It's not surprising that Whitten opposes anything that might interfere with the pork barrel spending spree. Of all the pigs at the pork barrel trough, he is rated the "pig-in-chief," even by many of his colleagues. He has steered millions toward wasteful agricultural research projects in his home state. He is also the biggest supporter of the multibillion-dollar Rural Electrification Administration, a New Deal-era dinosaur that has outlived its mission but which today provides funds to subsidize electricity for such pockets of rural poverty as Aspen and Vail, Colo., and Potomac, Md.
Failure to reform the REA is costing taxpayers about $1 billion annually.
By opposing implementation of the CFO Act, Whitten is telling us that he wants more HUD scandals. He wants to perpetuate wastefully incompatible government accounting systems. He wants to prevent improvement in the 100 "high risk" future S&L debacles identified by the Office of Mangagement and Budget. Mainly, however, he wants to perpetuate his own ability to build political and patronage networks at taxpayer expense.
Whitten is a good example of why taxpayers are demanding term limitations and the line-item veto. With term limits, no member of Congress would reach the point where they feel they can treat the Federal Budget as if they own it. Since "politics ain't beanbag," it would be naive to expect somehow to end Con-ress's long tradition of pork-barrel politics.
Taxpayers have the right to demand, however, that minimal steps be taken to secure their wallets against abuses. In the era of the HUD scandal, the savings and loan debacle, constant bleating in Washington about how hard it is to live on a $1.4 trillion budget, the CFO Act is the least our representatives can do.
Mr. Whitten, let it live.